Clinton meeting Mubarak in bid to salvage Mid-East trip

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was meeting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Wednesday in an attempt to salvage her Middle East tour after upsetting Arabs with praise of Israel.

Clinton added Egypt to her itinerary at the last minute after sparking criticism for welcoming as ”unprecedented” a pledge by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to limit settlement growth.

The secretary of state, whose tour had aimed to boost prospects of reviving the peace process, was scheduled to meet Mubarak and then hold a press conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit before returning to Washington.

”We recognised coming into the region that things have stalled, and we keep looking to see how we can begin to create some forward momentum again,” Clinton’s spokesperson Philip Crowley said late on Tuesday.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hossam Zaki said Mubarak would tell Clinton that Egypt, a key regional supporter of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, wants guarantees to assure the Palestinians that the talks would be meaningful.

”A settlement freeze is a basic element,” he said. ”There are other elements that are complimentary, there should be guarantees” for the Palestinians, he said.

Abul Gheit told Clinton by telephone on Monday that Egypt supports the Palestinian stance, which rejects negotiations until Israel completely halts settlement building, the official Mena news agency reported.

Cairo has long been a key player in international efforts to bring about an end to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Clinton had also called for a speedy resumption of peace talks that were suspended during the Gaza war over the new year, despite the Palestinian insistence that must Israel freeze settlement activity first.

She later clarified her comments to say that Washington still considers the settlements to be illegal and acknowledged she could have spoken more clearly.

”I think President [Barack] Obama was absolutely clear. He wanted a halt to all settlement activity,” she said in an interview with al-Jazeera television.

”Perhaps those of us who work with him and for him could have been clearer in communicating that that is his policy,” she said.

Abul Gheit said Cairo wants to hear Clinton’s clarifications of her remarks.

”She has given specific clarifications … and we want to listen to the clarifications directly and then assess the situation,” Mena quoted him as saying.

The settlements in the West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem, which Israel seized in the 1967 war with its Arab neighbours, are home to nearly 500 000 Israelis and are considered illegal by the international community.

Arab officials accused the Obama administration of reneging on its call earlier this year for a complete end to settlement building and said Clinton’s clarifications did not go far enough.

”Clinton’s backtracking on her remarks, especially with regard to the partial freeze of settlements, is not sufficient to restart negotiations with Israel,” Palestinian Authority spokesperson Nabil Abu Rudeina told Agence France-Presse. — AFP



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