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Middle East

Clinton backtracks on Israeli settlements after Arab anger

Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, was forced into an awkward diplomatic pirouette yesterday, insisting to Arab foreign ministers that Washington had not capitulated to Israel's continuing hunger for new Jewish settlements even if statements she had made 24 hours earlier seemed to imply exactly that.

Arab anger had flared after Mrs Clinton departed from the script of President Barack Obama at the weekend, suggesting that the Palestinians should agree to resume peace talks without preconditions, including that Israel first stop all settlement construction in the West Bank. She appeared to endorse the offer by the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to institute merely a limited suspension of construction in some areas.

While not backtracking entirely, Mrs Clinton attempted in Morocco last night to massage those remarks. Saying that Israel had expressed to her "a willingness to restrain settlement activity," she added: "This offer falls far short of what our preference would be, but if it is acted upon, it will be an unprecedented restriction on settlements and would have a significant and meaningful effect on restraining their growth."

Mrs Clinton, who travelled from Israel to meetings in Marrakesh, also offered fulsome praise to the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, for taking steps to meet Israel's demands, notably for increased security, and said that "Israel should reciprocate".

Fears are growing on the Arab side that Washington is going soft on Israel out of an overwhelming desire to get talks started again. In the summer, Mr Obama plainly demanded that Israel cease all settlement construction to allow peace talks to go forward.

Mrs Clinton's words, spoken while in Israel on Sunday, prompted a particularly stark warning in Marrakesh from Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League. "I am telling you that all of us, including Saudi Arabia, including Egypt, are deeply disappointed ... with the fact that Israel can get away with anything without any firm stand that this cannot be done," he said. "The Palestinians say that a viable state for their people will not be possible with more settlements."