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US Awaits Israeli Assurances, Delays Mitchell Trip

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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday that the Obama administration is still awaiting assurances from Israel on its commitment to the regional peace process following last week's announcement on new Jewish housing in East Jerusalem.  In the meantime, a trip to the region by the U.S. Middle East envoy is on hold.

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Clinton is discounting reports of a major crisis in U.S.-Israel relations, but she is making clear that she wants to see substantial gestures by the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to repair damage from last week's housing announcement.

The Israeli government angered and embarrassed the Obama administration a week ago when it announced, as Vice President Joe Biden began a visit to Israel, that it will build 1,600 new Jewish housing units in mainly-Arab East Jerusalem.

The United States is seeking assurances from Mr. Netanyahu that such an incident will not be repeated, as well as pledges that it is prepared to discuss all of the core issues of the Middle East peace process - including Jerusalem - in talks with the Palestinians.

At a press event with Irish Foreign Minister Michael Martin, Clinton said the U.S. administration is in very active consultations with Israel over steps by the Jewish state that "would demonstrate the requisite commitment" to the peace process.

She said that when the U.S. side has more to say about those contacts, it will share it with the media.   Clinton dismissed a reporter's suggestion that the housing issue has driven U.S.-Israel relations to their lowest point in decades.

"We are both committed to a two-state solution," she said. "But that doesn't mean that we're going to agree.  We don't agree with our international partners on everything.  And with respect to the announcement that occurred when the vice president was there, we've expressed our dismay and disappointment and we have, as I said earlier engaged in consultations with our partners in the peace effort - the Israelis and the Palestinians - about the way forward."

Administration officials say U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell, who was to have begun a trip to the region Monday, has postponed his departure because of the housing controversy.

Mitchell, a former Senate Majority Leader, led a successful U.S. mediation effort on Northern Ireland in the 1990s.  Irish Foreign Minister Martin said he is confident that Mitchell can prevail in his Middle East task as well.

"We do know that your friend, Senator George Mitchell, who, of course, played such a valuable role in Northern Ireland, has applied himself diligently and with great attention to detail," he said. "We know his patience, his legendary patience, in situations like this.  And as we have said in many international forays, we in Ireland have great confidence in his capacity and your capacity to see this through."

Martin said Ireland supports the early convening of the indirect Israeli-Palestinian "proximity" talks that Mitchell had hoped to begin this week.  He also said that Israel's "siege" of Gaza had strengthened the hand of Hamas and other extremists in the region, while undermining moderates.

Clinton said she had no disagreement with Martin on the need to alleviate suffering in Gaza.  But she said that if Hamas wants to play a part in peace talks, it needs to meet international terms by renouncing violence and accepting Israel's right to exist.   

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