WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and her aides worked Monday to salvage Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, hosting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and cajoling Palestinian leaders angered by Israel's decision to build 1,600 dwellings in East Jerusalem.
The effort took on new urgency against the backdrop of fresh violence on the West Bank, and a dispute over Jewish settlements that has prompted the worst friction between the United States and Israel in almost 20 years.
In a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobby, Clinton mixed strong words of support for Israel with continued criticism of its construction in East Jerusalem.
In response to U.S. demands, she said, Netanyahu has "responded with specific actions Israel is prepared to take. … We will follow up on these discussions and seek a common understanding about the most productive way forward."
The key question appears to be whether the Obama administration can tease sufficient concessions from Netanyahu to lure wary Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas into peace talks.
Underscoring the situation's sensitivity, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said news cameras would be excluded from the two leaders' meeting this evening. Similarly, there was no media access to Clinton's meeting with Netanyahu at a Washington hotel Monday. That one-on-one session went on for 75 minutes, longer than planned.
According to news reports from Israel, Netanyahu has agreed to take steps to improve life for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. His government also seems willing to entertain U.S. insistence that indirect "proximity" talks, should they get under way, deal with the core disputes between Israel and the Palestinians, rather than just procedural questions.
But on East Jerusalem, the most Obama can likely hope for is a private assurance that new construction will be minimized and that there will be no more embarrassments like that of two weeks ago. It remains to be seen if that will satisfy Abbas.