In a warm and empathetic speech toward Israel, US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said Wednesday night it was necessary to "decide whether we are serious about peace or whether we will lend it only lip service."
Her comments at President Shimon Peres's Israeli Presidential Conference 2009 in Jerusalem came as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's envoy Yitzhak Molcho and Defense Minister Ehud Barak's chief of staff Michael Herzog returned from the intensive negotiations they have been conducting in Washington to find a formula to relaunch talks with the Palestinians.
Molcho and Herzog are expected to brief Netanyahu's inner cabinet - the "septet" - on Thursday. The seven ministers are also expected to discuss the possibility of opening the border crossings into Gaza for a certain period as a gesture to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
A PA team, headed by Saeb Erekat, is also holding negotiations with the Obama administration in Washington.
The talks have been bogged down for weeks over issues such as the terms of reference for the negotiations, what will be discussed, how long they will last, what the goals will be and whether a complete settlement freeze would be a precondition to restarting the discussions.
Rice seemed to hint broadly at the US position.
"We must all take responsibility for the pursuit of peace and security," she said. "The time has come to relaunch negotiations without preconditions that address the permanent-status issues: security for Israelis and Palestinians, borders, refugees and Jerusalem. Our goal is clear: a comprehensive peace, including two states living side by side in peace and security - a Jewish State of Israel, with true security for all Israelis, and a viable, independent Palestinian state with contiguous territory that ends the occupation that began in 1967 and realizes the potential of the Palestinian people. This is in the interests of the United States, of Israel and of the Palestinians."
Her comments seemed to split the difference in issues of contention between Israel and the Palestinians. While seeming to side with the Israeli position that the negotiations should start without preconditions - in contrast to the Palestinian call for a complete settlement halt - and that it should lead to an "end of the conflict," or a "comprehensive peace," she nodded toward the Palestinian position in saying that all the core issues should be on the table: borders, refugees and Jerusalem.
Her comment that the agreement should end the occupation that began in 1967 is generally agreeable to Israel, since it does not call for a withdrawal to the 1967 lines, a position Israel has been concerned the US would adopt.
Also, Rice's call for a "Jewish State of Israel" is important for Jerusalem, which wants the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, just as Israel has declared that it would recognize a demilitarized Palestinian state. A Jewish state is also generally seen as diplomatic code for denying a Palestinian refugee "right of return."
"Being serious about peace means understanding that tomorrow need not look like yesterday," Rice said, "that Israel can find peace, security, and prosperity with not just its immediate neighbors but in the region as a whole, and that Israel can truly and fully take its rightful place among the nations, and that Palestinians can at last enjoy the dignity and blessings of freedom in an independent state of their own."
In light of comments such as Rice's, and the tenor of the talks in Washington, government officials said Wednesday it was unlikely US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would point an accusatory finger toward Israel when she reported on the status of the talks to US President Barack Obama, as she is expected to do next week.
One Israeli official said that "there are a lot of different issues that have to be addressed," and that "it is not clear we have gotten over" all the obstacles.
The official said that while Israel had shown a willingness to come to "some sort of middle ground" on a number of issues, there had been no softening of positions among the Palestinians.
As a result, the official said, there was no certainty inside the Prime Minister's Office that the Palestinians were indeed interested at this time in pursing negotiations, thinking that it may perhaps be in their interest to hold out for a better offer.
"The Palestinians are not going to get everything they want," the official said. "They are not going to be able to fix the end game in advance."
He said that even after months of discussions with the Americans, it was not clear whether the PA wanted to enter the political process, or whether at this time it didn't suit their interests and they would rather sit on the sidelines and wait to see what impact international pressure would have on Israel.
Prior to her speech, Rice met with Netanyahu, who thanked her for the Obama administration's strong opposition to the Goldstone Report and for her continued support within the UN framework, according to the Prime Minister's Office. Netanyahu's office characterized the hour-long meeting as "very friendly."
Netanyahu also met Wednesday with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and - in a departure from the norm regarding meetings with Solana - issued a statement about it afterward and even said the meeting had taken place in a "very positive atmosphere."
While Netanyahu meets frequently with Solana when he visits, the Prime Minister's Office very rarely issues statements after these meetings. The same was true when Solana met with former prime minister Ehud Olmert.
According to the statement, the two men discussed Iran as well as the current diplomatic process, with Netanyahu expressing hope that the Palestinians would restart the negotiations in the near future.
Netanyahu also spoke on Wednesday with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who - along with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin - sent Netanyahu a congratulatory note on the prime minister's 60th birthday.