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Hillary defends remarks praising Israel

After Pakistan and Israel, Clinton meets Arab foreign ministers in Marrakesh.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, left, attends a lunch hosted by Morocco's Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi Firhi, right, at the Mamounia hotel in Marrakesh November 2, 2009. Clinton, who is meeting Arab foreign ministers in Morocco on Monday, is likely to be told they are disappointed she did not exert more pressure to freeze settlement expansion when she met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week. (Jean Blondin/REuters)

MARRAKESH, Morocco — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas Monday for taking “positive steps” towards peace talks with Israel, while suggesting Israel could do more.

Her remarks came amidst criticism from the Arab world that she had sided with Israel by calling their offer to limit, but not halt, settlement growth an “unprecedented” step forward.

"This offer falls far short of 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," said Clinton here, in response to the Arab complaints.

Clinton is expected to be pressed on this issue when she meets with Arab foreign ministers at a conference here.

Clinton arrived in Morroco Sunday for meetings with officials from Arab and G8 countries on the final leg of a trip spent tackling two of America’s biggest foreign policy goals: security in Pakistan and peace in the Middle East.

On her way here, Clinton met separately with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a bid to restart a stalled peace process. The United States has consistently urged both sides to resume peace negotiations, which were suspended last winter after the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip.

So far, Clinton’s visit appears to have done little to break the impasse.

President Abbas maintained that the Palestinian Authority will not resume talks unless Israel stops the expansion of settlements in disputed areas. Clinton has called for a settlement freeze in the past, but raised eyebrows on this trip when she publicly praised Netanyahu, calling his offer to limit settlement growth before beginning negotiations “unprecedented.”

"There has never been a precondition," Clinton said. "It has always been an issue within the negotiations.”