Clinton seeks to reassure Arab nations on Israeli settlements

MARRAKECH, Christophe Schmidt - US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sought to reassure Arab nations on Monday over Washington's position on Israeli settlements, pledging that her country still opposed them.
After deep concern over her statements at the weekend that many saw as a change in the US position, Clinton's new comments seemed to persuade Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Malki, who said he was "satisfied."

Clinton seeks to reassure Arab nations on Israeli settlements
The United States had previously urged a total halt to new Israeli construction in the occupied West Bank as a precursor to new Mideast peace negotiations.
But on Saturday Clinton said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's offer to restrict new building was "unprecedented".
The top US diplomat, on a tour aimed at relaunching Middle East peace talks, on Monday praised efforts by Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas to improve security and said Israel must reciprocate.
Clinton said Netanyahu's offer "falls far short of our preferences" but was still worth seizing.
"If it is acted upon it will be an unprecedented restriction on settlements and will have a significant and meaningful effect on restraining their growth," Clinton said ahead of an international conference of Arab foreign ministers in Marrakech, Morocco.
"The Obama administration's position on settlements is clear and unequivocal. It has not changed. The US does not accept the legitimacy of continuing Israeli settlements."
Al-Malki said Clinton's previous comments had "surprised" the Palestinians.
"I think that those statements were later corrected," he said. "So, we are satisfied that position has been straightened out."
A US official said later that Clinton would visit Egypt on Wednesday to meet President Hosni Mubarak as part of efforts to relaunch the peace talks.
Clinton said she has pressured Israel to do "much more" for Palestinians.
"I told Prime Minister Netanyahu that these positive steps on the part of the Palestinians should be met by positive steps from Israel on movements, access ... and Israeli security arrangements in the West Bank," she said.
Abbas "has shown leadership and determination" regarding concerns over security, she said, "and Israel should reciprocate."
Despite Clinton's efforts, Arab League chief Amr Mussa said the latest US peace initiative looked doomed to fail.
"I'm really afraid that we are about to see a failure. But still wait until we have our meetings and decide what we're going to do. But failure is in the atmosphere all over," he said in an interview with the BBC.
The Israelis, he said, only wanted to see a Palestinian state with "a flag and passport and stamps. I don't think the Israelis are against a state, but against a viable state."
"I have a reservoir of confidence in President Obama, that sustains my hope that the Obama administration will not accept this slap on the face and that they will try harder and in a firmer way," he added.
Ahead of the Marrakech conference, a US official argued that Netanyahu "goes further in his willingness to restrain the settlements than any Israeli government before."
"While we reject the legitimacy of settlements, we also do not feel that they should be a precondition for negotiations," said Clinton's spokesman, Philip Crowley.
The Arab world, however, was unconvinced.
According to the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam, Abbas and his aides were "astonished" by Clinton's acceptance of Netanyahu's offer.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit said Sunday that it was "not reasonable or acceptable to conduct negotiations with the continuation of settlements."
Even the left-wing Israeli daily Haaretz was puzzled by Clinton's position.
"All US presidents since (the 1993 Oslo accords), including Hillary Clinton's husband, treated the settlements just like the weather: an interesting topic for conversation, but impossible to change. But Barack Obama has promised a change, not more of the same," the paper said.
Washington has for months been struggling to revive peace talks as part of a push toward a regional deal that would also see Israel strike peace with Syria and Lebanon, with Arab states normalising relations with the Jewish state.
But the efforts have made little visible progress, with the issue of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, considered illegal by the international community, the main stumbling block.

Tuesday, November 3rd 2009
Christophe Schmidt

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