US, Israeli Officials Disagree on Unilateral Steps towards Regional Peace

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both agree on their desire for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement—they just disagree on one way to try and get there. On Wednesday, Barak offered the possibility of unilateral action by Israel if a stalemate continues, which the Haaretz newspaper interpreted as meaning a withdrawal from the West Bank. Clinton discouraged the prospect the next day.

According to excerpts of a speech released by his office, Barak said, “We must try and achieve a comprehensive agreement; it is of the utmost importance. We must aim to discuss all of the core issues, putting an end to the conflict, and an end to mutual claims. If this appears to be impossible, we need to think of an interim agreement, and even unilateral actions.”

Haaretz later quoted Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, a member of the leading political party in the coalition, as saying Barak’s comments did not represent the government’s position.

Clinton, in comments at a press conference posted on the US State Department website, said they have “discouraged unilateral action from both sides.”

“The United States believes there is no substitute for direct talks between the parties,” said Clinton. “…We have discouraged unilateral action from both sides, and in fact, we think that this new coalition government in Israel provides the best opportunity in several years to reach such a negotiated agreement.”

The Palestinians also rejected Barak’s suggestion. In comments published by the WAFA Palestinian news agency, Palestinian Presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh called an Israeli unilateral move unacceptable.

He said such a step would continue the conflict rather than solve it. A core issue between the sides has been how to handle the status of Jerusalem. Hence, an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank to create a temporary Palestinian state would not address a crucial point of disagreement.

Rudeineh made it clear they will not compromise on East Jerusalem serving as their capital. “Without Jerusalem nothing will be accepted,” WAFA quoted him as saying.

The Palestinians suspended peace talks with Israel in 2010 after Israel chose not to extend a 10-month partial settlement construction freeze. The Israeli settlement gesture had been intended to jumpstart negotiations, which had been halted towards the end of the previous Israeli government’s term during the Gaza war.

However, the Palestinians refused to resume direct talks until the settlement moratorium was nearing its end. Currently, the Palestinians are demanding that a new freeze be put in place before talks can resume.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a speech on Tuesday posted on his office’s website, called upon Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to take advantage of the current Israeli political stability. The current unity government in Israel covers more than three-quarters of the Knesset (parliament) and includes center-left and right-wing parties.

“President Abbas, all we are saying is ‘give peace a chance’” said Netanyahu. “This is a real opportunity. It will not necessarily be repeated in general or political history, but it exists now and peace negotiations need two sides. One side is ready and willing.”

(By Joshua Spurlock,, May 31, 2012)