Clinton to attend Mideast session amid crisis

Quartet to discuss frozen Israeli-Palestinian peace process, arms control.

Clinton Saudi Arabia 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Clinton Saudi Arabia 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
With the Mideast peace process stalled and US-Israeli relations in crisis, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton headed Wednesday to a Mideast strategy meeting of top international diplomats.
As originally conceived, the meeting in Moscow of the so-called Quartet group of peacemakers — the US, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — was intended to lend support for the start this week of indirect talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. But these talks appear to be on hold due to Palestinian and American objections to Israeli construction in east Jerusalem.
Clinton also will use her Moscow visit to discuss another high foreign policy priority of the Obama administration: arms control. The US and Russia are said to be close to concluding a follow to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expired in December, but the final bargaining has been rocky.
William Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, told reporters traveling with Clinton that her visit to Moscow was an important opportunity to advance the arms talks, but does not necessarily mean an agreement is imminent.
"We are getting closer," Burns said, but he added he could not estimate how much longer it would take to settle the remaining issues. He declined to identify the specific sticking points.
The agreement is expected to reduce each side's long-range nuclear weapons by about one-quarter from levels set in a 2002 treaty that superseded the earlier START pact. The newer treaty did not include an extension of agreed measures to verify each side's compliance. The current negotiations include verification measures that would replace those in the 1991 deal, which expired last December.
The Quartet group is to meet over dinner Thursday, followed by formal talks on Friday. Joining Clinton will be Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, and the Quartet's special representative, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
The group is meant to represent an international consensus on the importance of pressing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and a commitment to establishing a Palestinian state as part of that process.
Michele D. Dunne, a Mideast expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Tuesday that the Quartet might back US-initiated demands of Israel, including that it reverse the east Jerusalem housing decision and make a gesture to the Palestinians. But she saw little chance of it working.
"To say that you have to rescind approval for this construction in east Jerusalem is very unusual — very unusual for the United States to go that far," she said. "And I don't think [Prime Minister Binyamin ] Netanyahu will do it." Netanyahu is due to visit Washington next week.
In an op-ed published Thursday in The New York Times, Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren reasserted his country's opposition to any restrictions on building in east Jerusalem. But he denied that US-Israel relations were "at a historic low point" because of the disagreement.
"Because we share fundamental values — democracy, respect for individual rights and the rule of law — our friendship can sustain occasional disagreements, and remain unassailably solid," Oren wrote.
In remarks at the State Department on Tuesday, Clinton spoke hopefully of getting the peace talks back on track.
"There is just too much at stake for both the Palestinians and the Israelis," for them not to resume bargaining, she said.
GeorgeMitchell, the Obama administration's special envoy for Mideast peace,was supposed to have been shuttling between the Israelis andPalestinians this week, prior to joining Clinton in Moscow on Thursday.But he canceled his Mideast visit as the administration awaited wordfrom Netanyahu on whether he would reverse last week's housing decisionand take other steps to reassure Washington and the Palestinians.