In face of Arab anger, Clinton amends view on Israel's offer to curb West Bank growth
U.S. wants construction frozen, not just curbed, she emphasizes

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 3, 2009

MARRAKESH, MOROCCO -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton tried to soothe Arab uneasiness Monday over weekend statements she made praising the Israeli government's offer to "restrain" growth in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, saying it "falls far short" of the Obama administration's hopes and is "not enough."

Reflecting her concern over the Arab reaction, Clinton decided to extend her week-long trip to the region, scheduled to end Tuesday, with a previously unplanned stop in Cairo on Wednesday to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. On Sunday, Egypt backed the Palestinian stance that negotiations cannot resume until Israel stops all settlement construction.

Clinton insisted that the administration still considers settlement activity on disputed territory "illegitimate" and advocates a freeze. But she repeated at a news conference here that Israel's offer was "unprecedented" and that it "holds the promise of moving a step closer to a two-state solution."

In remarks made Saturday with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Clinton set off a firestorm in the Arab world by emphasizing the "unprecedented" nature of Israel's offer while failing to add that it was "not enough." She described the overture as significant enough to draw the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, where they could argue the point with the Israelis.

Under the plan, Israel in the West Bank "will build no new settlements, expropriate no land, allow no new construction or approvals," as Clinton put it, for a period diplomats say would last nine to 12 months. But nearly 3,000 housing units currently on the books would still be built, and the ban would not include East Jerusalem, which Palestinians hope to make their capital. About 300,000 Israelis live in West Bank settlements.

Officials traveling with Clinton declined to characterize her earlier remarks as a mistake, saying it was important to praise Israeli movement even if it fell short of administration goals. But the officials acknowledged that her comments required further explanation.

Clinton's attendance here at a conference on development and governance in the Arab world was initially intended to solidify the goodwill engendered by President Obama's speech to the Islamic world in Cairo in June. But it was quickly overwhelmed by controversy over Clinton's remarks.

Even before Clinton's bilateral and group meetings here began Monday morning, Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa, holding court in a hotel lobby near the conference center, said, "We have to ask her -- does she really think this an acceptable thing?"

Late in the afternoon, foreign ministers from Persian Gulf states sat grim-faced in front of television cameras ushered in at the beginning of a closed-door meeting with Clinton. When a reporter asked Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal to comment as he began a one-on-one meeting with Clinton, she interjected, "No questions," and the door was closed. When Saud swept out of the session 20 minutes later, he would say only: "She's having a press conference."

The 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 over the past several weeks to apparent impatience over the refusal of Palestinian officials to resume peace talks in the absence of a settlement freeze.

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

Analysts were also dubious that Israel's offer represented any breakthrough.

Elliott Abrams, a deputy national security adviser in the Bush administration who helped negotiate an unwritten agreement with Israel on settlement growth, said that based on the statements of Netanyahu and Clinton, "this is precisely what was agreed with the Israelis in the previous administration."

Israel inconsistently lived up to the Bush-era agreement, and Clinton refused to acknowledge it when she took office, insisting instead on a full settlement freeze.

Geoffrey Aronson, executive director of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and a close tracker of settlement growth, said he is puzzled about why the Obama administration is making its claims, because the number of housing starts that would be grandfathered in would be historically higher than the annual growth most years in the West Bank settlements.

"There is not a great deal of clarity, and it is hard to make an assessment," Aronson said. " 'Unprecedented' is a reach, in my view."

Staff writers Glenn Kessler in Washington and Howard Schneider in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company