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Clinton Says Middle East Status Quo 'Unsustainable'

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Israel's security, while urging the Jewish state to make difficult choices for peace.  Clinton, addressing the pro-Israel U.S. lobbying group AIPAC, said the status quo in the region is unsustainable.

The AIPAC speech, in the aftermath of an angry dispute over Israeli housing policy in Jerusalem, included soothing words about American backing for Israel, with Clinton saying the U.S. commitment to Israel's security and future is "rock solid, unwavering, enduring and forever."

But Clinton also said the United States expects both Israel and the Palestinians to show flexibility as U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell works to convene indirect negotiations on so-called final status issues of the peace process.

She said continued conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors threatens Israel's long-term future as a secure and democratic Jewish state, and that the status quo is unsustainable for all sides.

"There is another path, a path that leads toward security and prosperity for Israel, the Palestinians and all the people of the region," she said.  "But it will require all the parties, including Israel, to make difficult but necessary choices.  Both sides must confront the reality that the status-quo of the last decade has not produced long-term security or served their interests."

Clinton's speech came two weeks after an Israeli announcement of new Jewish housing in East Jerusalem, coinciding with an Israel visit by Vice President Joe Biden that put a deep chill in the bilateral relationship.

The mini-crisis in relations has since been eased by reassurances by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that U.S. mediated Israeli-Palestinian proximity talks can deal with the core issues of the peace process, including Jerusalem.

But Mr. Netanyahu has said Israel will not freeze housing construction in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians want as the capital of a future state.

Clinton said U.S. criticism of Israel over the issue was not a judgment on Jerusalem's final status but about getting to the negotiating table and creating an "atmosphere of trust" around it.

"New construction in East Jerusalem or the West Bank undermines that mutual trust and endangers the proximity talks that are the first step toward the full negotiations that both sides say they want and need," she added.  "And it exposes daylight between Israel and the United States that others in the region hope to exploit. It undermines America's unique ability to play a role, an essential role, in the peace process."

Clinton, who said a two-state solution to the conflict is the only viable path for Israel, reiterated demands that the militant Palestinian movement Hamas, which controls Gaza, must renounce violence and recognize Israel if it wants to play a role in the peace process.

And she attacked, as pure and simple incitement, Palestinian charges that the rededication of a synagogue in the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem's Old City earlier this month threatened Muslim holy sites.

The secretary, who said that forces that threaten Israel also threaten the United States, said there is no greater strategic threat to Israel than the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.

"A nuclear-armed Iran would embolden its terrorist clientele and would spark an arms race that could destabilize the region," said Clinton.  "This is unacceptable. Unacceptable to the United States, it is unacceptable to Israel, and unacceptable to the region and the international community. So let me be very clear: the United States is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons."

Clinton said U.S. efforts at engagement, spurned by Iran, have stripped Tehran's leaders of what she termed "their usual excuses" and shown that Tehran is responsible for the nuclear impasse.

She said the U.S. aim is not incremental sanctions against Iran, but sanctions "that will bite" and she spoke of a growing international consensus to pressure Iran to change course.

She acknowledged the process is taking time, but that it is a worthwhile investment to win the broadest possible support for a new sanctions regime.

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