Clinton to meet Arab ministers on peace prospects

Clinton to meet Arab ministers on peace prospects

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton prepared Monday to consult with Arab foreign ministers on Obama administration efforts to get Israel and the Palestinians to resume peace negotiations, two days after she raised Arab ire by praising Israel's offer to limit - but not stop - Jewish settlement construction, AP reported

Clinton was to meet first with Moroccan Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi Fihri before flying to the southern-central city of Quarzazate for an audience with King Mohammed VI. Later she was returning to Marrakech for talks with foreign ministers of several Persian Gulf nations.

Clinton also was expected to meet separately with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, who has rejected U.S. appeals for improved Arab relations with Israel as a way to help restart Middle East peace talks, saying the Jewish state is not interested in a deal.

After taking office in January, President Barack Obama buoyed Palestinian hopes for progress toward establishing a Palestinian state with his outreach to the Muslim world and an initially tough stance urging a full freeze to all settlement construction.

But after making little headway with the Israelis in recent months, Clinton urged Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in a face-to-face meeting in Abu Dhabi on Saturday to renew talks, which broke down late last year, without conditions. Abbas said no, insisting that Israel first halt all settlement activity in the West Bank and east Jerusalem - lands the Palestinians claim for a future state.

Then, at a joint news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu late Saturday in Jerusalem, Clinton praised Netanyahu's offer to curb some settlement construction, saying it was an unprecedented gesture.

"I believe that the U.S. condones continued settlement expansion," Palestinian government spokesman Ghassan Khatib said Sunday in a rare public chiding of Washington.

"Calling for a resumption of negotiations despite continued settlement construction doesn't help because we have tried this way many times," Khatib added. "Negotiations are about ending the occupation and settlement expansion is about entrenching the occupation."

Palestinians expressed deep disappointment and frustration at Clinton's words, which signaled a softening of the past U.S. call for a complete freeze on settlement activity.

Jordan and Egypt also issued statements Sunday critical of the latest U.S. approach to the settlements issue. Clinton spoke by telephone with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit.

Clinton was in Marrakech to attend a regional conference called Forum for the Future, with representatives of nations of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as advanced industrialized countries. It is the final stop on a weeklong journey that began Wednesday in Pakistan.

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