WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States reassured Israel on Tuesday that the two countries enjoy an “unshakeable bond,” but maintained pressure for a renewed Israeli commitment to peace talks with the Palestinians.
“We have an absolute commitment to Israel’s security. We have a close, unshakeable bond between the United States and Israel,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, moving to quell a diplomatic spat that has rocked ties between Washington and its closest Middle East ally.
Her comments marked a turn following days of tough talk after Israel announced last week it would approve construction of a Jewish housing project in East Jerusalem, infuriating the Palestinians and jeopardizing Middle East peace talks.
The White House has been criticized by U.S. lawmakers and pro-Israel lobby groups for its harsh stance toward Israel, which analysts said was likely one reason for its softer tone.
U.S. Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell on Tuesday put off plans to return to the region, and Clinton again pressed Israel to show it was serious about new peace moves.
“We are engaged in very active consultations with the Israelis over steps that we think would demonstrate the requisite commitment to the process,” Clinton said in an appearance with Ireland’s visiting foreign minister.
The Israeli announcement undercut a deal brokered by Mitchell for Israel and the Palestinians to enter indirect talks, which the United States hoped would lead to a resumption of direct negotiations suspended more than a year ago.
The Palestinians have demanded that Israel halt the plan to build 1,600 new housing units at Ramat Shlomo, a religious settlement within the Israeli-designated borders of Jerusalem, before the talks can resume, but Israel has balked.
Hundreds of rock-throwing Palestinians clashed with police
on Tuesday in several locations in East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in a 1967 war. Israeli police responded with teargas and rubber bullets.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Mitchell still hoped to meet Israeli and Palestinian officials “as soon as possible,” but this would not happen before Middle East peace mediators meet in Moscow on Thursday and Friday as he had originally planned.
Crowley said U.S. officials expected a formal Israeli response shortly to a set of specific demands Clinton laid out to Netanhayu last week, and that this would inform the next U.S. moves on the issue.
A senior U.S. official said the response would likely come in a telephone call from Netanyahu to Clinton before she leaves for Moscow on Wednesday.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, echoing Clinton, also sought to put the settlement dispute into perspective.
“Mature bilateral relationships can have disagreements and this is one of those disagreements,” he said. “It does not break the unbreakable bond we have” with Israel.
A senior Obama administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, dismissed any suggestion that the administration was adopting a tougher line on Israel.
“We are not searching for conflict here. We were responding to what was a very counter-productive announcement. We had a strong disagreement with that action,” he said.
He also denied the administration had softened its language following Tuesday’s comments by Clinton and other officials about the unshakeable bond between the United States and Israel.
“The language (condemning the housing project) reflected our position, that is our response to the announcement. That position remains,” he said.
Clinton, who last week called Israel’s announcement “insulting”, on Tuesday brushed away suggestions that the U.S.-Israeli relationship was in the midst of its worst crisis in decades.
“We share common values and a commitment to a democratic future for the world, and we are both committed to a two-state solution” for Israel and the Palestinians, she said. “But that doesn’t mean that we are going to agree. We don’t agree with any of our international partners on everything.”
Clinton said that, while the United States had expressed “dismay and disappointment” over the Israeli announcement, it was now time to move forward.
“I think we’ll see what the next days hold and we’re looking forward to Senator Mitchell returning to the region and beginning the proximity talks,” Clinton said.
Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Arshad Mohammed and Ross Colvin, editing by Cynthia Osterman