Clinton has 'productive meeting' with Egypt on Mideast peace process

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton defended the U.S. stance toward Israeli settlement building to worried Arab allies, saying Washington does not accept the legitimacy of the West Bank enclaves.
By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 4, 2009; 12:29 PM

CAIRO, Nov. 4 -- After four days of Arab criticism over her efforts to break the impasse in the Mideast peace process, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton enjoyed a respite here Wednesday, as her Egyptian counterpart agreed it was time to "focus on the endgame" of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit made clear he did not share Clinton's positive interpretation of Israel's offer of a partial moratorium on West Bank settlements, which just three days ago he described as "not reasonable or acceptable" as the basis for the Palestinians to return to the bargaining table.

"We feel that Israel is hindering the process . . . [and] putting on conditions in order to continue settlement activities, even if limited," Gheit said. He spoke at a news conference with Clinton after she met with President Hosni Mubarak.

But in the city where President Obama last summer delivered his much-praised outreach speech to the Islamic world, the Egyptians at least appeared disinclined to publicly criticize his secretary of state. While not directly endorsing Clinton's outline for new negotiations, Gheit said he agreed that "we should not waste time."

Clinton attributed the apparent softening in Egypt's position as a response to her personal diplomacy, conducted over visits to four capitals in the region over the past five days. "I thought it was a very productive meeting," she told reporters traveling with her after the news conference, adding that it "shows the value of consultation and listening and sharing ideas and hearing the other side and putting forward your views and explaining."

Aides praised what they called Clinton's willingness to bring difficult issues out into the open and not to let the quest for perfection shut the door to incremental progress. In Pakistan, where she spent the first three days of her week-long trip, Clinton listened for many hours to journalists, students and others who publicly lambasted the administration for everything from what they called its tilt toward India to its missile attacks against insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistani territory. In response, she offered patient explanations and reminders that the administration had its own problems with some of Pakistan's policies.

Since she began a plunge into the peace process over the weekend -- with hastily scheduled stops to see Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on her way to a conference of Western and Arab leaders in Morocco -- Clinton has again been listening and explaining. Palestinian and Arab leaders reacted sharply to her suggestion to Abbas that he use what she called an "unprecedented" Israeli offer -- to suspend construction in the occupied West Bank except for East Jerusalem for a period of nine to 12 months, not counting nearly 3,000 previously planned units -- as a spur and starting point for the resumption of high-level talks.

To many in the region, Clinton appeared to be backtracking on the administration's stated insistence that Israel freeze all settlement activity, and she has felt obliged to clarify.

"Our policy on settlements has not changed," she replied to the first question Wednesday from an Egyptian journalist. "I want to say it again. Our policy on settlement activity has not changed."

The Israeli proposal "is not what we prefer," Clinton said, "because we would like to see everything ended forever. But it is something that shows at least a positive movement to the final status issues."

In her meetings in Morocco and here with Mubarak -- a last-minute add-on before her return to Washington -- Clinton has asked for help in encouraging Palestinian acceptance for at least low-level talks to avoid a vacuum in the peace process into which violent actors might be tempted to move.

Several Arab governments have suggested they -- and the Palestinians -- might be more amenable if the administration was willing to guarantee that their favored "terms of reference" were adopted as the framework for talks at any level. Their requests include acceptance of Israel's 1967 borders and the establishment of East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state as a stated endpoint for negotiations. Israel, which has its own favored terms, has rejected both prior to the start of negotiations.

In his September speech to the United Nations, Obama set out "what were in essence the terms of reference for any negotiations," including mention of "the territory occupied [by Israel] since 1967 . . . Jerusalem . . . [and] refugees," Clinton said.

Asked about Palestinian proposals that they might feel more secure in negotiations if the administration would guarantee a reference to East Jerusalem, among other things, Clinton called it "a welcome suggestion," adding that "we have discussed it with them, with nearly everyone."

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