(CNSNews.com) – A top congressional Democrat has blamed the Palestinian Authority’s unwillingness to return to talks, rather than Israel’s stance on settlements in disputed territory, for the lack of movement in Mideast peace efforts.
In comments appearing to contradict those of the Obama administration, U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer on Thursday played down the importance of the settlement issue.
“I don’t think settlements are nearly the big issue that confronts the Palestinians and the Israelis in reaching an agreement,” the Maryland Democrat was quoted as telling a press conference in Jerusalem.
“I think the largest thing impeding the negotiations at this point is simply the unwillingness of [Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud] Abbas to sit down now” for talks with the Israeli government, he added.
Hoyer’s comments were carried by the Palestinian Maan news agency, which characterized them as a breaking of ranks with President Obama.
The existence and expansion of Israeli communities in areas the Palestinians want for a future state has long been an issue of contention between Jerusalem and Washington, but it has come to the fore under the Obama administration.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has agreed not to approve the building of new settlements but, like his predecessors, argues that construction within existing ones – “natural growth” as communities expand – cannot be frozen.
Obama said in his speech to the world’s Muslims in Cairo last June that it was time for Israeli settlements to “stop,” and administration officials from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton down have made it clear that there will be no exceptions for natural growth.
Hoyer, who is leading a delegation of Democratic lawmakers, suggested that too much was being made of the question of natural growth.
“The issue of natural growth in the settlements has become a large part of the story, when really it is a marginal aspect of the peace process,” he said.
Hoyer expressed an understanding of both the Israeli and P.A. positions.
“Israel’s standpoint is that if one of your children gets married and wants to live close to you, there needs to be a place to live. That’s not an irrational argument,” he said. “[From] the Palestinians’ point of view, that’s not a freeze. That’s not an irrational argument.”
Abbas, fresh from the first congress of his Fatah organization in 20 years, told its newly-elected Central Committee in Ramallah on Thursday that he would not resume peace talks unless Israel stops “all forms of settlement activity without exception, in Jerusalem and the rest of the occupied territories.”
The international community considers eastern parts of Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan in 1967 along with the West Bank, to be “occupied Palestinian territory.”
The P.A. wants to establish the capital of an envisaged independent state in the city; Israel regards all of Jerusalem as its “undivided, eternal” capital.
Last month, Netanyahu voiced surprise when the State Department called in Israel’s ambassador to warn Israel not to allow the building of a modest apartment building on a piece of privately-owned real estate in Jerusalem, the site of the defunct Shepherd Hotel.
He was quoted as telling his advisors that he had made it clear to Obama when the two met in Washington last May that “Jerusalem is not a settlement, and it has nothing to do with discussions on a freeze.”
In his comments Thursday, Hoyer also appeared to be at odds with the administration on the Jerusalem issue too.
“I personally perceive Jerusalem as a unified city,” he said. “I continue to view it as a unified city.”
Hoyer’s delegation did not meet with Abbas, but did hold talks with caretaker P.A. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
The visit of the Democratic delegation came days after a group of Republican lawmakers, led by House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), made the trip, and criticized the administration’s stance on settlements.
Meanwhile, former Arkansas governor and 2008 Republican presidential aspirant Mike Huckabee will this weekend attend a function at the Shepherd Hotel site, Israeli media report.
Huckabee is a strong supporter of Israel and its claim to Jerusalem, a city he has visited frequently. He will be visiting as a guest of Ateret Cohanim, a religious Israeli organization that has a yeshiva in the Old City and works to help Jews settle in the historical area and elsewhere in eastern Jerusalem.