US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has arrived in Cairo for talks with President Hosni Mubarak aimed at pushing forward with Mideast peace talks and dispelling Arab fears over Washington's perceived change of stance on Israeli settlement growth.
AFP - US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, facing an Arab backlash over her praise for Israel's offer to ease settlement growth, arrived in Cairo on Tuesday for hastily convened talks with President Hosni Mubarak.
She was to go straight into a meeting with Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit and intelligence chief Omar Suleiman and meet Mubarak on Wednesday morning.
Abul Gheit said Clinton had asked for the meeting with Mubarak to discuss her administration's efforts to push for Palestinian-Israeli talks, adding that the peace process was "now passing into a critical stage," the official MENA news agency reported.
On Monday, Abul Gheit told Clinton by telephone that Egypt supported the Palestinian stance, which rejects negotiations until Israel completely halts settlement building, the 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 extended her regional trip after she was criticised for praising as "unprecedented" a pledge by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to limit settlement growth, steps that fall far short of previous US demands for a complete halt to all settlement activity.
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.
A US State Department official denied the stopover in Cairo was for damage control.
"We always carry a sense of urgency into the Middle East, because if there's a vacuum, there are lots of spoilers willing to take advantage of that vacuum," said another official, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley.
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.
Egypt wants guarantees from Washington to assure the Palestinians that the negotiations "will not be used to waste time or be used for achieving Israeli goals," he added.
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 spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina told AFP.
Although Washington had said it did not consider a settlement freeze a precondition for the resumption of peace talks, Clinton's comments appeared to place the onus for its effort's success on Abbas.
Abbas, who had held peace talks with Netanyahu predecessor Ehud Olmert in the absence of a settlement freeze, cannot afford to be seen as succumbing to Israeli pressure, analysts say.
"It's hard for him to backtrack and give Hamas another card, for his popularity to drop domestically," said Imad Gad, an analyst with the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
Abbas's popularity dipped after he supported the delay of a UN vote last month on endorsing a report that accused Israel and Hamas of war crimes during the 22-day Gaza war. He went on to endorse a subsequent vote after withering criticism from Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, and his own party.
Osama Hamdan, a Beirut-based senior official with Hamas, which opposes peace talks with Israel, said Clinton's comments showed that "hopes in Obama were misplaced."
Date created : 2009-11-04