U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell has postponed his planned talks with the Israelis and Palestinians indefinitely, waiting for a response from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's list of demands follow the row over new housing in East Jerusalem.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley first said that Mitchell simply couldn't fit in the meetings before he is scheduled to be in Moscow on Thursday for a meeting of the Quartet, the Middle East peace contact group that includes the European Union, Russia, the United Nations, and the United States. "It's the tyranny of the schedule," he said.
But when pressed, Crowley said that Mitchell was still waiting for Netanyahu's formal response to Clinton, as conveyed during their 43-minute angry phone call last Friday. Of course, Mitchell had been planning to leave on Sunday and then was thinking about leaving as late as Monday evening, before the decision was made at the last minute not to go.
"We did delay that departure so that he would be informed by the Israeli response to the secretary's conversation with Prime Minister Netanyahu," Crowley said, adding that State expects the response shortly and follow-on meetings are still expected, although nobody knows when.
A State Department official said on background that it was Mitchell's decision not to go on the trip, in consultation with State and White House officials. Another phone call between Clinton and Netanyahu could come tomorrow, the official added.
Obama administration officials involved in the discussions in Washington this week include the NSC's Dennis Ross, David Hale, Dan Shapiro, and others.
Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman is in Tripoli now in advance of the Arab League meeting later this month, a State Department official confirmed -- not mentioning that Libya remains angry at comments Crowley made from the podium earlier this month.
"We want to reaffirm the commitment by both sides that we will continue these proximity talks in the coming days and that is our plan," Crowley said. He revealed some of the distrust of the Israelis inside the Obama administration when he said, "They've told us they remained committed to the process. We just want to make sure that their words are followed by actions."
Clinton herself struck a similar tone Tuesday morning in her remarks after meeting with Irish Foreign Minister Michael Martin.
"We are engaged in a very active consultation with the Israelis, over steps that we think would demonstrate the requisite commitment to this process," she said. "Our goal now is to make sure that we have the full commitment from both our Israeli and our Palestinian partners to this effort."
Netanyahu's office was quick to issue a statement in response, which said, in part, "With regard to commitments to peace, the government of Israel has proven over the last year that it is commitment [sic] to peace, both in words and actions."
Lawmakers from both parties have been active in asking the White House to back down from its harsh rhetoric toward the Israeli government and its list of demands, which reportedly include asking Netanyahu to reverse the decision to approve the building of 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem and promise to include core issues in the coming indirect negotiations.
Congressmen on both sides have said the U.S.-Israel dispute risks complicating international efforts to pressure Iran, but Clinton said, ‘I don't buy that ... We have an absolute commitment to Israel's security. We have a close, unshakable bond between the United States and Israel and between the American and Israeli people."
"I think both sides have now climbed up a tree that's going to be very difficult to climb down from," said Aaron David Miller, former Middle East negotiator. "The way each side is reacting seems to guarantee that it's not going to be easy to close this latest flap."
(Correction: Netanyahu's title corrected to "prime minister.")
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.