Softer tone coming from Washington

Clinton reaffirms "unshakable bond" in first public sign crisis winding down.

Hillary Clinton 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Hillary Clinton 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who blasted Israel on Friday and kept alive a crisis in relations triggered by last week’s announcement of new housing in Ramat Shlomo, reiterated US support for Israel on Tuesday in the first public signs that the crisis was winding down.
Asked at a Washington press conference with Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin whether this was the worst Israeli-US relations had been in 35 years, Clinton said, “I don’t buy that. We have an absolute commitment to Israel’s security. We have a close, unshakable bond between the United States and Israel and between the American and Israeli people, who share common values and a commitment to a democratic future for the world.”
Clinton said that both countries were also committed to a two-state solution.
“But that doesn’t mean that we are going to agree. We don’t agree with any of our international partners on everything,” she said.
Just four days after a blistering phone conversation with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, followed by television appearances in which she said the announcement of plans to build in Ramat Shlomo while Vice President Joe Biden was in Israel was an insult not only to Biden but to the US, Clinton reiterated US “dismay and disappointment” at that announcement.
She also said the US was “engaged in very active consultations with the Israelis over steps that we think would demonstrate the requisite commitment to the process.”
Clinton, in Friday’s conversation with Netanyahu, reportedly asked that he cancel the Ramat Shlomo project, make gestures to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to get him to agree again to enter proximity talks, and agree that the “core” issues be discussed during those talks.
Israel’s position before this was that these talks should only deal with technical matters needed to get into direct negotiations, not core issues such as borders, security, Jerusalem and refugees.
Netanyahu is widely expected to agree to parts of these demands, but not all of them. A likely scenario is that he would make an announcement that there would be no more “surprises” like the one that greeted Biden last week, and that Israel would agree that all the core issues be discussed in the proximity talks.
The Prime Minister’s Office, eager to put an end to the public spat with the US, jumped on Clinton’s remarks on Tuesday, issuing a statement saying it appreciated Clinton’s “warm words.”
The statement went on to address questions about Israel’s commitment to peace, saying Israel had proved its commitment over the last year through both words – such as Netanyahu’s speech at Bar-Ilan University in which he accepted a two-state solution – and actions, such as the housing-start moratorium in the West bank.
The statements then blamed the Palestinians for holding up the diplomatic process, saying the PA had placed unprecedented preconditions on starting talks, had led the campaign of delegitimizing Israel around the world, and had continued to incite hatred and violence.
Clinton, meanwhile, said that Middle East envoy George Mitchell – who postponed a visit this week – would return soon to the region.
“We’ll see what the next days hold, and we’re looking forward to Sen. Mitchell returning to the region and beginning the proximity talks,” she said.
The US Embassy in Tel Aviv said that Mitchell, who was originally slated to meet Netanyahu on Wednesday, had postponed his visit because of “logistical reasons” and the need to hold meetings in Washington before going to a meeting of the Quartet Thursday in Moscow.
Netanyahu hopes to have meetings next week with senior US administration officials, either Clinton or Biden. Netanyahu is scheduled to speak Monday evening at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference in Washington during a brief stopover in the US.
He is also expected to stop on the way home in Brussels for meetings with key EU officials.
One of those officials, EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton, is scheduled to arrive in Israel Wednesday for a one-day visit. Her trip comes just days after she sharply criticized Israel for the Ramat Shlomo announcement, and then later hinted broadly that the EU could use the prospects of an upgrade with Israel as leverage.
Ashton is scheduled to travel to the Gaza Strip, making her the highest-level international official to go there from Israel in months. Ashton – along with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who is scheduled to arrive on Friday – received permission to visit Gaza from Israel, but pledged not to meet Hamas representatives.
Ashton will be accompanied by UN officials on her visit, which will be her first to Israel since taking over her post in December. Officials in Jerusalem view this as an important opportunity to present the Israeli perspective to someone who has little in the way of diplomatic experience or a track record with the country.
In addition to going to Gaza, Ashton – on a regional tour that has also taken her to Egypt, Lebanon and Syria – is scheduled to meet Abbas and PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
On the Israeli side, she will meet Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres.
Peres,meanwhile, voiced muted criticism of Netanyahu on Tuesday, saying at amemorial ceremony in honor of late prime ministers and presidents ofIsrael that “we cannot afford to unravel the delicate fabric offriendship with the United States.”
“We must develop friendshipswith other nations, especially with the United States, to ensurepolitical backing in our hour of need and military support against thedangers that face us,” he said. “We must make our supreme efforts notto stand alone; to recruit the good in people, and to extract the bestin them.”