Washington: The Obama administration criticised Israel on Wednesday for designating two shrines on Palestinian territory as national heritage sites.
The criticism came as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she hopes long-stalled peace talks between Israelis and the Palestinians will resume. Hillary told a congressional committee that groundwork is being laid to restart the talks with the help of US envoy George Mitchell.
She didn't say exactly when the negotiations might resume but her remarks come amid a flurry of US diplomatic activity in the region.
They come as the United States, Russia and their Middle East peace partners are trying to organise a strategy session among top diplomats in the Russian capital next month to prod the two sides to re-launch the negotiations.
"We hope that that will commence shortly," Hillary told the Senate Appropriations Committee, referring to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. "We think it is absolutely necessary that they begin to talk about the final-status issues that divide them, that have perpetuated the conflict over all of these years."
Underscoring those difficulties, the State Department on Wednesday sharply criticised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government for adding two shrines in the West Bank to Israel's list of national heritage sites. The move, announced on Sunday, sparked Palestinian protests and has drawn criticism from other quarters, including the United Nations.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the administration viewed the move as "provocative" and unhelpful to the goal of getting the two sides back to the table.
Toner said the US’ displeasure with the designations of the Cave of the Patriarchs in the flashpoint town of Hebron and the traditional tomb of the biblical matriarch Rachel in Bethlehem had been conveyed to senior Israeli officials by American diplomats.
The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank as part of a future state and also protested the Israeli move — a largely symbolic gesture — as a provocation and the move heightened long-standing tensions, particularly around the shrine in Hebron.
Jews revere the site as the Cave of the Patriarchs, where the Bible says the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were buried along with three of their wives. Muslims call it the al-Ibrahimi mosque, reflecting the fact that Abraham is considered the father of both Judaism and Islam.
First Published: Thursday, February 25, 2010, 12:07