Clinton: U.S. policy on Israeli settlements not changed

cairo  |  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did a lot of backpedaling and explaining this week after her Oct. 31 comments in Jerusalem were interpreted by Arab governments as a tilting of U.S. policy toward Israel.

In Morocco, she issued what she called a clarification. Then in Egypt, she 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 and wants to see their construction halted “forever.”

Still, she said an Israeli offer to restrain — but not halt — construction represents “positive movement forward” toward resuming Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

Clinton met for an hour with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak Nov. 4 during a hastily arranged stopover in the Egyptian capital to soothe Arab concerns that Washington is backing off demands for an Israeli settlement halt.

The rush to Cairo also was a clear sign of concern that Egyptian and Arab support for the Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts may be waning. Over the past month, Egypt has been scaling back its already limited contacts with Israel in an apparent protest over settlements.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at a press conference in Jerusalem Oct. 31. photo/ap/dan balilty

Egypt, a critical role player as Mideast peace mediator, appeared reassured by Clinton’s visit, and Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit called for a resumption of negotiations.

“The Egyptian vision is that we have to concentrate on the end game and we must not waste time adhering to this issue or that as a start for the negotiations,” Aboul Gheit said at a press conference with Clinton. “The United States did not change its position that it rejects the settlement building,” he said, but “the United States wanted the parties to start the talks.”

Aboard her plane after departing for the United States, Clinton said she thought the Egyptian stopover was “productive, constructive.”

It was the end of a topsy-turvy few days for Clinton, who on Oct. 31 stood with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem and praised his offer to limit settlement construction without halting it.

Clinton came to Netanyahu’s defense when a reporter asked the prime minister at a joint press conference why Israel would not agree to a settlement freeze as a means of luring the Palestinians back to the talks.

Netanyahu replied that such a freeze was never a precondition for talks, but that he was ready to impose a qualified freeze in any case.

“I said we would not build new settlements, not expropriate land for addition for the existing settlements, and that we were prepared to adopt a policy of restraint on the existing settlements, but also one that would still enable normal life for the residents who are living there,” he said.

Clinton jumped in and said, “I would add just for context that what the prime minister is saying is historically accurate. There has never been a precondition. It’s always been an issue within the negotiations.

“What the prime minister has offered in specifics of a restraint on the policy of settlements, which he has just described — no new starts, for example — is unprecedented in the context of the prior two negotiations.”

Clinton spent the next few days furiously trying to clarify the remarks.

There was a degree of understanding for Clinton’s position in the pro-Israel community in Washington, and no one was ready to take back the praise they had lavished upon her for backing up Netanyahu in the first place. AIPAC “applauded” Clinton and called on the Palestinian Authority and Arab states to return to talks.

In Egypt, Clinton insisted “our policy on settlement has not changed.”

“We do not accept the legitimacy of settlement activity. Ending all settlement activity current and future would be preferable,” she told reporters after talks with Mubarak.

Of the Israeli offer, she said, It is not what we would prefer because we would like to see everything ended forever.

“But it is something that I think shows at least a positive movement forward toward final status issues being addressed,” she added.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is sticking to his refusal to resume negotiations until Israel stops building settlements. He rejected the Israeli plan to complete 3,000 housing units in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and to continue to construct public buildings and other construction in east Jerusalem — a territory Palestinians hope will be their future capital.

After Arab criticism of her comments in Jerusalem on the Israeli plan, Clinton delayed her return to Washington after attending an international conference in Marrakech, Morocco, and flew instead to Cairo.

In another twist, Clinton made what appeared to be an inadvertent slip of the tongue in a Nov. 3 interview with the Al-Jazeera network, referring to the goal of “an Israeli capital in east Jerusalem.”

It has not been U.S. policy to favor including east Jerusalem in an Israeli capital; the Palestinians claim it as their capital, and the issue is one of the most important and delicate points that would have to be settled in any final peace deal.

In the Al-Jazeera interview, Clinton reiterated that President Barack Obama has clearly stated his desire for a halt to settlements. But she added that the Israeli offer of “restraint,” to include an end to establishment of new settlements and other measures that limit settlement growth, might be close enough to the ultimate U.S. and Palestinian goal to merit embracing in the near future.

“It is nowhere near enough, but I think when you keep your eye on what we want to achieve, it is a better place to be than the alternative, which is unrestrained (growth),” she said.

Aboard her plane, Clinton insisted that “we have to figure out a way to get into the relaunch of negotiations.”

JTA contributed to this report.