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Clinton meets with Mubarak in bid to ease Arab frustration over Israeli settlements

The secretary of State makes an unscheduled stop in Egypt to try to clarify her stand on Israeli settlements and salvage prospects for Middle East peace talks.

November 05, 2009|Jeffrey Fleishman

CAIRO — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Wednesday in a move to rescue shrinking Middle East peace prospects and regain the confidence of Arab nations angry that Washington has not pressed Israel harder to stop building settlements.

The meeting with Mubarak was the latest in a series of sensitive talks Clinton has held with Israeli, Palestinian and Arab leaders during a six-day visit to the region. Arab capitals have grown exasperated over Israel's settlement activity and are expressing doubt about whether the Obama administration can create grounds for a new round of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.

The hope for significant progress toward Middle East peace that Obama's speech raised here in June has diminished after months of unsuccessful diplomacy. The administration is now viewed by many in the region as badly stumbling on a major foreign policy goal that could damage its relations with a wider Arab world whose cooperation it needs in dealing with other problems, such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Islamic militancy.

The atmosphere was further strained Saturday when Clinton praised a proposal by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a partial freeze on settlement expansions that would allow the completion of 3,000 housing units in the West Bank and not limit construction in East Jerusalem. Clinton's embrace of the Israeli offer, which she characterized as an opportunity to get peace talks moving, was criticized across the Arab world as an indication that the U.S. was softening its stance on Israel.

Her unscheduled stop Wednesday in Cairo was a mission to ease Arab annoyance and persuade the Palestinians not to make a total halt in settlement activity a condition for resuming negotiations with Israel. She has acknowledged that she could have been more precise in articulating Washington's opposition to expanding settlements.

"We do not accept the legitimacy of settlement activity and we have a very firm belief that ending all settlement activity, current and future, would be preferable," Clinton told reporters after a one-hour meeting with Mubarak. She said the Israeli offer "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."

After meeting with Clinton, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said, "The Egyptian vision is that we have to concentrate on the endgame, and we must not waste time adhering to this issue or that as a start for the negotiations.

"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."

Gheit's comments offered a bit of support from a key Arab ally. The Obama administration's aim has been to revive peace talks by pushing the Israelis to freeze settlement construction while urging Arab countries to begin normalizing relations with the Jewish state. The approach so far has failed. Palestinians and Arab leaders are against new talks until all settlement activity is stopped.

High-level talks between Israelis and Palestinians are unlikely this year, and it is uncertain whether even low-level delegations will meet.

"I don't think that Clinton's swift visit to Cairo will encourage Arabs and Palestinians to work harder for the already-stalled peace talks," said Wahid Abdel Maguid, an analyst with Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "Israel is simply moving on with settlement expansion, and the bigger problem is Clinton hinting that negotiations can restart before the halting of the settlements. . . . I'm afraid that neither Egypt nor the Palestinians will accept this."

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jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Amro Hassan in The Times' Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.

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