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Arab leaders to confront Clinton over Israeli settlement comments

By Karen DeYoung and Howard Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 2, 2009; 10:11 AM

MARRAKESH, Morocco -- Arab leaders gathering for a conference here with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Monday they would confront her over what they called a major shift in the U.S. position in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, charging that she had set negotiations back more than a decade by appearing to accept some ongoing Israeli settlement construction in the occupied West Bank.

Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa called Clinton's comments a "slap in the face" to the Palestinians. "President Obama said something totally different than what she said," Moussa said here Monday morning. "We have to ask her -- does she really think this is an acceptable thing?"

U.S. officials suggested that Clinton misspoke in a Saturday news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu when she called Israel's offer -- of talks "without preconditions" and "restraint" in settlement construction -- "unprecedented" and appealed to Palestinians to bring their objections to the negotiating table. Her mistake, they said, was her failure to repeat the administration's baseline policy that all settlement activity should stop immediately.

In a statement here Monday morning before meeting with the Moroccan foreign minister, Clinton backed away from her earlier remarks, saying that the administration's position has not changed and that "the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements." However, the Israelis now are "expressing a willingness to restrain settlement activity," she said. "They will build no new settlements, expropriate no land, allow no new construction, or approvals."

Apparently reading from written notes, she said: "This offer falls far short of what we would characterize as our position or what our preference would be. But if it is acted upon, it will be an unprecedented restriction on settlements and would have a significant and meaningful effect on restraining their growth."

In a report to Obama last month, Clinton said, she had praised steps taken by both sides, including Palestinian efforts on improving security. "Israel has done a few things . . . but they need to do much more," she added.

But the outraged Arab response illustrated the sensitivities that have long characterized the peace process, as well as the difficulty of achieving the Obama administration's goal of restarting negotiations by the end of the year.

Clinton's comments represented a shift in the dynamics since Obama took office, with initial pressure on Israel giving way to apparent impatience over the refusal of Palestinian officials to resume peace talks in the absence of a settlement freeze.

The first months of Obama's administration were marked by sharply worded demands that Israel stop building in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Palestinians consider the areas part of a future Palestinian state and say that a halt to settlements on Israel's part would simply be fulfilling promises already made under previous international agreements. The United States and much of the international community consider the West Bank settlements, home to about 300,000 Israelis, contrary to international law and an impediment to a final peace agreement between the two sides.

Clinton's Jerusalem remarks, made as she stood smiling by Netanyahu's side, "mean that we are once again in the same vicious circle we were in in the 1990s," Moussa said. "Everything is negotiable. We are not ready to be taken for a ride again by Israeli diplomacy."

Clinton is in Morocco to attend the sixth annual Forum for the Future, an annual meeting of leading government officials from the Middle East and North Africa with the Group of Eight major industrialized economies to discuss political and economic reforms. It is her last stop on a trip that began last week with three days in Pakistan, followed by a day of nonstop Middle East negotiating as she tried to jump-start the stalemated peace process.

On Saturday, she flew from Pakistan to Abu Dhabi for a two-hour meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas -- a session that took place inside a futuristic building encircled by Abu Dhabi's Formula One race track amid the audible roar of cars zooming around them. Palestinian officials said she conveyed to Abbas Israel's offer of a moratorium on West Bank building that excluded construction on Arab lands in East Jerusalem and up to 3,000 housing units already under construction.

On Sunday, following Clinton's departure, Palestinian officials criticized what they called U.S. "backpedaling" and said the administration's change of approach had undercut the likelihood of a peace deal.

"If America cannot get Israel to implement a settlement freeze, what chance do the Palestinians have of reaching agreement" on the even more complex set of issues involved in final peace talks, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said in a written statement.

"We are at a critical moment," Erekat said. "The way forward, however, is not to drop the demand for Israel to comply with its obligations."

The U.S.-mediated peace process, overseen by special envoy George S. Mitchell, is "in a state of paralysis, and the result of Israel's intransigence and America's backpedaling is that there is no hope of negotiations on the horizon," said Nabil Abu Rudaineh, a spokesman for Abbas.

Although Netanyahu rebuffed the initial U.S. demand, he also offered alternatives that, while short of what the Palestinians wanted, were still characterized by Clinton over the weekend as unprecedented concessions made in hopes of helping direct talks resume.

Netanyahu, at the start of a weekly cabinet meeting, said on Sunday that he hopes the Palestinians will "come to their senses" and start negotiations without preconditions. Previous direct peace talks have been held between the two sides even as settlement construction continued.

However, Obama's election raised expectations among Palestinians and throughout the Arab states that the peace process would yield quicker results from an administration willing to openly criticize Israel and, it seemed, elevate Palestinian interests.

The settlement freeze has become central to those perceptions. Both Egypt and Jordan on Sunday issued statements backing Abbas's position that talks cannot resume until settlement construction is stopped.

Schneider reported from Jerusalem.

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