Top US officials pressed Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal to support Palestinians in holding peace talks with the Israelis, during his visit to the State Department Monday.
"We certainly think the Saudis can be helpful in getting the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table," one senior US official told The Jerusalem Post following Faisal's visit with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, which he characterized as "a good meeting."
Faisal also spent nearly an hour with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who also discussed the peace process with her counterpart. But the issue was only one part of a conversation on regional issues at a time when Riyadh has become largely preoccupied with flaring violence over the border in Yemen.
"I believe the most significant topic of discussion was Yemen," US State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Tuesday.
The meeting comes as Saudi Arabia has sent troops to bolster Yemeni forces in that poorest Arab country, which has accused the rebel forces of being funded by Iran.
But it comes as Israel has announced a moratorium on settlement construction and is looking to restart peace talks with Palestinians as well as its Arab neighbors. Earlier this year, the US had been seeking an Israeli settlement freeze as part of a package of gestures to restart talks, including Saudi moves.
Middle East expert Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies characterized the current Israeli perspective as "We've done something, and it's time for the Arabs to do something."
But he said that from the Arab side, the
moratorium - which was preceded by some new building being approved and included exemptions for many current projects - wasn't sufficient.
"The Saudis don't take the settlement freeze seriously, and much of the world treats it skeptically," he said. "They don't feel compelled to [act]."
Clinton has praised the move as "unprecedented," but she and others have also criticized it for not going far enough.
"Israel's very aware that this step is significant as far as it goes, but it's not nearly what the Arabs or the Palestinians, or the United States, were asking them to do, so let's not overstate it," said the senior US official, who referred to the Israeli move as a "unilateral" one.
He also stressed that the Obama administration had moved beyond a focus on gestures from the parties to a creating momentum for a resumption in peace talks, a major point of Monday's meetings.
"Our focus right now is to see what we can do to try to encourage the parties, all of them, to move beyond the kind of cul-de-sac that we find ourselves in, and to continue to refocus on the future and see what we can do to get the process moving forward again, and to ultimately convince the parties to enter into a negotiation," Crowley said.
He rejected the notion that the "cul-de-sac" represented a dead end or failure in American policy. Instead, he said, "to the extent that we're kind of stuck for the moment, we're looking at how we can encourage both [parties] to get back on a track."
In this climate, European Union foreign ministers this week endorsed recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of both Israel and a future Palestinian state.
Though the US is familiar with the EU's perspective, Crowley said that for the US, "our position on Jerusalem is clear. And we believe that, as a final-status issue, this is best addressed inside a formal negotiation among the parties directly."