Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Clinton deputies defend Middle East trip as success



WASHINGTON — State Department officials defended Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's five-day Middle East trip, which was marred by controversy over Israeli settlements.

Clinton's trip was intended to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which is one of President Barack Obama's top foreign priorities but has been stalled for close to a year.

"When she started out... the focus was on what is negative, what couldn't be done," said Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of state for the Middle East.

"The secretary, by investing time with the Israeli, Palestinian and Arab leaders, moved this forward to have people focus again on the end game: a two state solution, comprehensive peace and what do they need to start moving toward that endgame."

But Clinton's trip was marked by Palestinian and Arab disappointment over the positive reception she gave to an Israeli offer to partly freeze new settlement building.

She was forced to repeatedly insist that the US position on settlements "has not changed," emphasizing that the administration, along with the Palestinians, continued to support a complete freeze on settlements.

But she added that the proposal should be sufficient for long-stalled talks between the sides to resume.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanayahu's announcement that he was ready to resume negotiations without preconditions "put tremendous pressure on (Palestinian President Mahmud) Abbas," a senior State Department official told AFP Wednesday.

"But once you're in the negotiations, the pressure is on both sides to negotiate in good faith, to listen, to make constructive proposals," the official said. "The pressure ratio changes dramatically in the Palestinians favor."

Clinton began her trip in Pakistan, then headed to Abu Dhabi and Jerusalem for meetings with Netanyahu and Abbas. She met in Morocco with her Arab counterparts at the Forum for the Future in Marrakech, and rounded out her trip with a stop in Egypt.

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