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U.S. Top Middle East Negotiator: Continued Israeli Settlements "Intended" To Damage Talks

Martin Indyk says both sides were to blame for the failure of talks, but apportions special blame to the lack of an Israeli settlement freeze.

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. special envoy for Middle East peace talks Martin Indyk blamed Israeli settlement activity for the failure of the latest round of peace negotiations in his first public appearance since the talks were suspended.

In the last week, U.S. officials have gone to the press on background to blame both the Israelis and the Palestinians for the breakdown of the talks — some citing more unhelpful actions by the Palestinians, some by the Israelis. But even in background quotes, the officials have not gone as far to lay blame on the Israeli settlements as Indyk did in his Thursday remarks.

Speaking at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's annual forum, Indyk said that not only did Israel's refusal to freeze plans for new settlement units during the negotiations have a "dramatically damaging" effect on the negotiations, but that it was "intended" to have that effect.

"I can tell you firsthand that that had a very damaging effect," Indyk said in a question-and-answer session after his remarks. "And by the way, it was intended to have that damaging effect."

Indyk called this a "humiliation" for Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and said, "I witnessed the way he shut down."

"What I do know is that in the midst of negotiations, the settlement announcements — not so much the tenders but the combination of the tenders and planning, coming as each tranche of [Palestinian] prisoners were released — had a dramatically damaging impact on the negotiations," Indyk said.

In Indyk's speech, he gave a muted version of Secretary of State John Kerry's leaked comments warning that Israel could become an apartheid state if it does not reach a final status deal with the Palestinians. Indyk warned that continued settlements could force Israel into an unwanted "bi-national reality."

"Prime Minister Netanyahu himself has made clear, the fundamental purpose of these negotiations is to ensure that Israel remains a Jewish and democratic state − not a de facto bi-national state," Indyk said. "The settlement movement on the other hand may well drive Israel into an irreversible bi-national reality. If you care about Israel's future, as I know so many of you do and as I do, you should understand that rampant settlement activity – especially in the midst of negotiations – doesn't just undermine Palestinian trust in the purpose of the negotiations; it can undermine Israel's Jewish future."

The gap on the Jewish state issue between the Israelis and the Palestinians, he said, was "very wide."

Indyk did apportion some blame for the failure of talks to the Palestinians. "We have spoken publicly about unhelpful Israeli steps that combined to undermine the negotiations," he said "But it is important to be clear: We view steps the Palestinians took during the negotiations as unhelpful too." He cited the Palestinians' decision to sign 15 international treaties and the Hamas-Fatah unity agreement.

Indyk acknowledged that the talks were "suspended," calling that fact "obvious to all," but said the process was not over.

He also said that Abbas is more focused now on succession and on his legacy, not on the negotiations, in part because of the settlement issue.

"He would rather go out as a leader that did not compromise on Palestinian rights than a leader that made a deal that didn't meet Palestinian requirements," Indyk said.

Indyk declined to discuss his comments after his appearance, saying, "I think you have enough material."

Rosie Gray is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, D.C. Gray reports on politics and foreign policy.

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