Mark Landler
The New York Times
February 4, 2010 - 1:00am

With an inadvertent bit of shorthand, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton set off a buzz in diplomatic circles on Wednesday, and may have offered a glimpse into how the Obama administration hopes to revive the stalled peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Answering a question at a news conference about how the talks might be revived, Mrs. Clinton said, “Of course, we believe that the 1967 borders, with swaps, should be the focus of the negotiations over borders.”

Such a concept is not new. For a generation of Middle East peacemakers, Israel’s borders before the Arab-Israeli war are the obvious starting point for negotiations over the shape of a Palestinian state.

But Mrs. Clinton’s mention of them went farther than the Obama administration’s standard script on the Middle East: that the positions of Israel and the Palestinians can be reconciled. Analysts said it could augur a new American emphasis, after a frustrating year in which President Obama failed to jump-start the peace process by pressuring Israel to halt construction of settlements.

In particular, Mrs. Clinton’s reference may appeal to the Palestinians, who have long declared that the 1967 borders should be the basis for negotiations. The United States is trying desperately to persuade the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, to return to the bargaining table.

“The reason why this is important is the context,” said David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “To have it formulated this way, at this sensitive juncture, gives it a kind of significance.”

A spokesman for the State Department, Philip J. Crowley, said that Mrs. Clinton had not been signaling a shift in policy. She has mentioned 1967 borders before — notably in a statement after Israel announced a 10-month moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank — though always in the context of the Palestinian position. This time, he said, she was merely speaking in shorthand.

“The secretary was reiterating our established policy on borders,” Mr. Crowley said. “She was not sending a signal.”

Earlier in the same news conference, with the foreign minister of Bahrain, Mrs. Clinton recited the full version of the policy. In addition to referring to the 1967 borders, “with agreed swaps,” she mentioned Israel’s goal of a “Jewish state with secure and recognized borders.”

“Agreed swaps” mainly refers to Jewish settlements in the West Bank, some of which would be legally granted to Israel in return for Israeli territory that would become part of a new Palestinian state.

The Israeli government has resisted entering negotiations on the basis of 1967 borders because it believes that would constrain its room for negotiation. On Thursday, Israeli diplomats said they had taken note of Mrs. Clinton’s words but did not want to jump to any conclusions.

“There’s an intense effort being made with the administration to resume negotiations, but we’re still at a preparatory stage,” said Jonathan Peled, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington.

Mr. Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen, has refused to enter negotiations with Israel until it freezes all construction of settlements, including in East Jerusalem, something it has refused to do. Some Palestinians said it was unlikely that Mrs. Clinton’s comments, by themselves, would bring him around.

“Abu Mazen seems to be averse even to getting U.S. commitments,” said Ziad J. Asali, the president of the American Task Force on Palestine. “It will take commitments that are credible.”

In the absence of a breakthrough, the United States is trying to encourage indirect talks between the sides, with its special envoy for the Middle East, George J. Mitchell, serving as intermediary.


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