Hillary defends remarks praising Israel

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.”


U.S. State Department Spokesman Ian Kelly said Clinton plans to continue pushing both sides back to the table during her visit to Morocco, where she is attending the Forum for the Future, a democracy and development conference attended by representatives from G8 countries and foreign ministers from across the Arab world.

"Everybody should keep their eyes on the goal here of a comprehensive peace, and to get there we have to get the two sides to the point where they can sit down and have meaningful negotiations," Kelly said. "We’re going to vigorously pursue this goal using all kinds of opportunities to do so."

Morocco is the final stop on something of a charm offensive Clinton launched across the Muslim world starting Wednesday in Pakistan. Clinton spent three days there, meeting with political leaders, journalists and members of the public.

Hours after she arrived, a car bomb exploded in Peshawar market, killing some 100 people. State Department officials objected to claims the blast was meant to disrupt her visit.

“We stand with those in Pakistan who are fighting this fight,” Kelly said. “I would not draw too much out of the fact that there was a bomb on the day that she arrived. There have been bombs, unfortunately, going off pretty consistently. It’s just an indication of the seriousness of this common challenge we have.”

Later in her visit, Clinton reportedly angered Pakistani authorities with some pointed remarks during a roundtable meeting with newspaper editors in Lahore, suggesting that Pakistan had failed to do all it could to flush Al Qaeda from safe havens along the Afghan border.

“I find it hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they are, and couldn’t get to them if they really wanted to,” she said.

After an audience and joint appearance with King Mohammed VI in the Moroccan town of Ouarzazate Monday, Clinton was set to meet with several Arab foreign ministers in Marrakesh, including Saudi minister Saud al-Faisal. She was then slated to address the press alongside Moroccan Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi Fihri Monday evening.