The Obama administration says the 10-month moratorium on new settlement construction starts in the West Bank announced by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday falls short of the complete freeze. But the administration is welcoming the action and is urging Israel and the Palestinians to seize on the opportunity to resume peace talks.
The tone of the Obama administration's reaction to the settlement freeze was set by U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell, who told reporters that while the United States shares Arab concerns about the limitations of Israel's gesture, it is more than any Israeli government has ever done.
"In the moratorium just announced by the government of Israel, there will be no new housing construction starts during the 10-month period.," said George Mitchell. "None. There will be no approval of any housing projects during the 10-month moratorium. None. No Israeli government has ever taken this step and nothing remotely like this occurred during the Bush administration."
The U.S. envoy said he will return to the region in the near future to try to build on momentum generated by the Israeli gesture toward a resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians.
Mitchell said the United States is sympathetic to Arab concerns, expressed in early criticism of the Netanyahu announcement. The freeze allows for buildings already under construction in West Bank settlements to be completed and does not apply to East Jerusalem, which Palestinians want as their future capital.
But Mitchell cited a statement by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the Israeli announcement helps "move forward" toward a resolution of the conflict and that the way to achieve that is through good faith negotiations.
"Nobody gets everything they want in a negotiation seeking to resolve a conflict like this," he said. "There has to be a willingness on everyone's part to give more than they want to give and to accept less than they want to get. That applies to everyone in the process."
The former U.S. Senate Majority leader said the Obama administration continues to press the Palestinians to improve prospects for peace by bolstering security and curbing anti-Israel incitement, and for Arab nations to build relationships with Israel in trade, culture and other areas short of the full normalization envisaged in a comprehensive peace.
Mitchell said he is not discouraged about his mission's recent setbacks, including acrimonious exchanges over a recent U.N. report alleging possible war crimes in last year's Gaza conflict, citing the example of his successful Northern Ireland peace efforts in the 1990s.
"In a real sense, we had 700 days of failure and one day of success," said Mitchell. "I know that, if anything, the Mideast is more difficult and more complex. But no matter where the conflict is or what it's about, if you're serious about peace, you can't take as final the first 'no,' the second 'no' or even the hundredth 'no.'"
In her statement, Secretary Clinton promised an "unwavering" U.S. commitment to a two-state solution, based on 1967 lines with agreed land swaps, that will create an independent and viable Palestinian state and an Israel with secure and recognized borders.