U.S.: Middle East peace is still a priority, still working on “direct” negotiations

The U.S. State Department’s Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner told journalists in Washington on Friday that America would “discourage frankly” anything that might affect resumption of “direct” Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Here are some excerpts from Toner’s exchange with journalists:
“QUESTION: Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator was quoted yesterday that the U.S. asked the Palestinians to give them two more weeks to try to convince Israel to freeze settlements. And the Arab League gave the U.S. a one-month period which will end on Monday. [n.b. - as we reported yesterday, the Arab League appears to have already extended this period for another month...]

MR. TONER: Well –

QUESTION: And can you comment on this?

MR. TONER: I really can’t. As we’ve said time and time again from this podium as well as Senator Mitchell and Secretary Clinton, we’re not going to talk about the details. They did meet yesterday. He did meet with Senator Mitchell. But I’m not going into what they discussed. But obviously, we remain hard at work and our priority remains getting the two sides back in direct negotiations.

QUESTION: Mind if I have a follow-up?

MR. TONER: Yeah, Michelle.

QUESTION: He also talked about one option that the Palestinians are weighing seriously is going to the United Nations and asking for a UN to declare a Palestinian state.

MR. TONER: And again, we –

QUESTION: What’s your position on that?

MR. TONER: Well, we talked about this yesterday. Our goal remains getting both sides back into direct negotiations. It is ultimately the only that all of these outstanding issues are going to be resolved. And so anything that might affect getting those – getting both parties back into direct negotiations, we would discourage frankly…

“QUESTION: There’s a report on the wires that President Abbas, according to a report on CNN website in Arabic, is saying that the U.S. promised the Palestinians that they will support them when the decide to go to the UN to ask for the declaration of a state if the process didn’t work out. I’m sure you are not getting –

MR. TONER: I haven’t seen his comments, so I can’t give any kind of reaction to them, but I just stated what our position is. We remain convinced that ultimately the only way that we’re going to get a comprehensive peace is through direct negotiations, and anything that might affect those direct negotiations we feel is not helpful and not constructive.

Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: The International Relations Committee in the House changing hand with Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is taking the presidency of the chairman seat on the committee. This is stirring a lot of worries everywhere in the circles of those people who are looking for realistic peace or efforts, U.S. efforts, to bring peace in the Middle East. How much – how is the State Department going to deal with this problem with Mrs. Ileana Lehtinen is very hardliner, so closely her thoughts, her beliefs, her ideologies is so closely aligned with Netanyahu hard-line kind of policies. Do you see any way that the State Department can actually bring Congresswoman Ileana to a more practical and understanding of the needs for the peace in the Middle East and for the implementation of UN resolutions accordingly?

MR. TONER: Well, we’ve talked a lot over the last couple of days about the new Congress and its possible effects on foreign policy and the conduct of foreign policy. The Secretary has, in fact, been reaching out to the new chairwoman. I don’t know if she has already or plans to, but obviously just to extend our good wishes, congratulate her and her other colleagues, and also to pledge our willingness and our commitment to work closely with Congress on a broad range of issues, but including Middle East peace. It is a priority for this Administration. It’s going to remain a priority for this Administration, and obviously we’re going to work hand in glove with Congress to advance direct negotiations and to ultimately reach a settlement.

QUESTION: Any updates on any of the calls Secretary Clinton’s made to new members of Congress? Has she made any today?

MR. TONER: I didn’t get a chance to check before walking out there, but I knew she has reached out or intends to reach out to a variety of people up on the Hill just to, again, pledge our willingness to work. Obviously, the President mentioned New START and getting that ratified in the lame duck session to come. That’s priority – one of our main priorities in the coming weeks. But obviously, Middle East peace, as was mentioned there, transitioned and building stability in Iraq, all these issues – Afghanistan, Pakistan – we look forward to working with the new Congress on all these issues”…

The transcript of this briefing can be read in full here.

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