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US touts peace process as Israel grabs land
Reuters
A Palestinian protester slings a stone at Israeli security officers during clashes in Nabi Saleh, near Ramallah.
A Palestinian protester slings a stone at Israeli security officers during clashes in Nabi Saleh, near Ramallah.
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OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: The Obama administration is scrambling to salvage hopes for Mideast peace talks after the United Nations overwhelmingly voted to recognize a Palestinian state over U.S. and Israeli objections.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with senior Israeli and Palestinian officials in the United States Friday to try to plot a path forward, as Israel announced it was authorizing 3,000 new settler homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Clinton met Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. She was also talking to Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, a key mediator.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said only “face-to-face” Israeli-Palestinian negotiations can lead to progress on a two-state solution.

He rejected talk of cutting U.S. aid to the Palestinians after they garnered overwhelming global support to join the U.N. as a non-member observer state.

Hours after the U.N vote, Israel responded by announcing its settlement expansion plans.An official, who declined to be identified, said the government had also decided to expedite planning work for thousands more homes in a geographically sensitive area close to Jerusalem that critics say would kill off Palestinian hopes of a viable state.

The decision was made Thursday when it became clear the U.N. General Assembly was set to upgrade the Palestinians’ status in the world body, making them a “non-member state,” as opposed to an “entity,” boosting their diplomatic clout.

Plans to put up thousands of new settler homes in the wake of the Palestinian upgrade were always likely, but the prospect of building in an area known as E-1, which lies near Jerusalem and bisects much of the West Bank, is seen by some as a potential game changer.

“E-1 will signal the end of the two state-solution,” said Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli expert on settlements. He added that statutory planning would take another six to nine months to complete, meaning building there was not a foregone conclusion.

The U.S., one of the eight nations to vote alongside Israel, said the latest expansion plan was counterproductive.

White House spokesman TommyVietor said: “We believe these actions are counterproductive and make it harder to resume direct negotiations or achieve a two-state solution.”

Ahead of the U.N. vote, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government had argued that the unilateral Palestinian move breached their previous accords and accused the 193-member world body of failing in its responsibilities.

“The General Assembly can resemble the theater of the absurd, which once a year automatically approves ludicrous, anti-Israeli resolutions,” said government spokesman Mark Regev. “Sometimes these are supported by Europe, sometimes they are not,” he added, alluding to the fact that only one European state, the Czech Republic, had voted against the Palestinians.

Nonetheless, analysts said the vote exposed the gulf that had opened between Europe and Netanyahu over his handling of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ administration, and the depth of EU opposition to settlement expansion.

“The government has failed to appreciate the gravity of the challenge to Israel’s fundamental legitimacy in Europe,” said Gidi Grinstein, head of the Reut Institute think tank. “The Palestinian bid in the U.N. is turning out to be a bigger defeat than anticipated.”

The U.N. upgrade will make little practical difference to the Palestinians or Israelis. But the new position will enable Abbas to seek membership of the International Criminal Court in the Hague if he wants. This is what worries Israel.

The Geneva Convention forbids occupying powers from moving “parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies,” leaving Israeli officials potentially vulnerable to an ICC challenge.

The Palestinians say they are in no rush to go to the ICC, but the threat is there, putting pressure on Israel to come up with creative solutions to overcome the peace-talks impasse, which the Jewish state blames on Abbas.

“This U.N. vote is a very strong signal to the Israelis that they can’t shove this matter under the carpet for any longer,” said Alon Liel, former director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. “This is a red light for Israel.”

With politicians campaigning ahead of Jan. 22 polls, Israel is unlikely to change course. Opinion polls suggest Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc will win a new term in office. The coalition includes pro-settler parties, and the prime minister’s own Likud group appeared to shift to the right in primaries this week, making any land-for-peace compromise with the Palestinians look more complex than ever.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 01, 2012, on page 1.
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