Dennis Ross to join list of top US officials arriving next week; J'lem pleased at his inclusion.
By HERB KEINON, JPOSTLEO GIOSUÈCOM
It is "premature" to talk about placing financial sanctions on Israel to get it to stop building beyond the green line, State Department spokesman Robert Wood said Tuesday night.
Asked at a press briefing whether the US was considering putting financial pressure on Israel to get it to comply with US demands, Wood said: "It's premature to talk about that."
"What we're trying to do," he said, "is to create an environment which makes it conducive for talks to go forward."
US Middle East envoy George Mitchell was working hard on this, Wood said. "And what we all need to do in the international community is support this effort, and that means Americans, that means Arabs and Israelis, [must] do what they can to kind of foster a climate in which the two sides can come together and negotiate their differences peacefully so that we can get to that two-state solution."
Meanwhile, senior White House adviser Dennis Ross will join an already crowded list of top US officials traveling to Israel next week, a step interpreted positively in Jerusalem as an attempt by the Obama administration to engage more constructively with Jerusalem.
Diplomatic officials confirmed that Ross, who last month was named special assistant to the president for the Central Region - a huge region taking in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Pakistan and South Asia - will pay his first visit to Israel next week in his new role. He moved to the White House from the State Department, where he had a much narrower portfolio.
Ross will come in the same week as Mitchell, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and National Security Adviser James Jones, who will be coming with some 10 members of his staff.
Asked about the sudden surge in high-level US visitors, one senior Israeli diplomatic official said, "It's about time. It's much better that the two countries discuss the issues between them face-to-face, and not through the media."
US President Barack Obama has come under some criticism recently for ignoring Israel while trying to court the Arab world. These high-level visits, another senior Israeli official said, underscore the importance Washington continues to attribute to its relations with Jerusalem.
The official said these visits were not tied to the recent spat over plans to build 20 apartments in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in east Jerusalem, although this issue was sure to be raised.
While the focus of the talks with Mitchell, scheduled to arrive Sunday, is expected to be the diplomatic process with the Palestinians and the settlement issue, the discussions with Gates, who will arrive Monday for a brief stopover of some six hours, are expected to concentrate on Iran. According to Israeli officials, the US wants to be updated on Israel's thinking on the matter.
Jones's visit will focus on the US-Israeli strategic dialogue, and the reason he is bringing such a large staff, Israeli officials said, is that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's national security adviser, Uzi Arad, wants to try to model his own NSC after the US paradigm.
Ross, who served as former US president Bill Clinton's senior Middle East negotiator, is expected to discuss the whole gamut of issues now impacting US-Israeli relations.
On the brink of this flood of top US officials, one senior Israeli source noted with satisfaction that the US administration's response to Netanyahu's pledge to continue building in east Jerusalem despite American opposition was relatively low-key.
US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley addressed the matter Monday at the daily press briefing in the State Department, saying the US believed the issue of construction in east Jerusalem "should be subject to permanent-status negotiations, and we are concerned that unilateral actions taken by the Israelis or the Palestinians cannot prejudge the outcome of these negotiations."
He said the US position on this matter was not new.
But if the US response was relatively low-key, Russia, France and Germany all called on Israel on Tuesday to stop all settlement construction, including construction in east Jerusalem, creating what one Israeli source called "unpleasant momentum."
"The settlement should be stopped immediately in line with the road map," AFP quoted Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko as saying, in reference to the plan to build 20 housing units in Sheikh Jarrah.
The French media reported that its Foreign Ministry would summon Israeli Ambassador Daniel Shek to protest the plan, and in Germany Reuters quoted Ruprecht Polenz, a senior member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's party, as saying Israel ran the risk "of gradually committing suicide as a democratic state" if it did not stop the construction.
Polenz, head of the German parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, told the Rheinische Post daily, "Israel is overlooking the fact that neither Palestinians nor Arab states will agree to a solution without east Jerusalem."
Despite these responses, sources in the Prime Minister's Office said Netanyahu was determined to continue construction in east Jerusalem as he saw fit.
Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon responded to the criticism, saying in a statement from his office that Israel acted "according to the national interests that are important to it."
This was especially true, he said, in relation to Jerusalem, where its rights, including the right to build, were inviolable.
In a related development, Alexander Saltanov, Russia's deputy foreign minister and special presidential representative for the Middle East, held talks in Jerusalem Tuesday with President Shimon Peres and Foreign Ministry director-general Yossi Gal.
Upon arriving Monday, he met with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. On Wednesday he will go to Ramallah for talks with the Palestinian Authority leadership.
Saltanov regularly visits the region, and prior to arriving in Israel held meetings in Damascus.
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