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WASHINGTON - US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton carefully recalibrated the administration's statements on Israel in a major foreign policy address Wednesday, stressing the need for greater Palestinian and Arab action on the peace process.
She also toughened US rhetoric toward Iran, warning that the window for engagement "would not remain open indefinitely," and reiterating that Teheran's goal of a nuclear weapon was unacceptable. She referred to a changed situation on the ground that has "shifted" prospects for engagement despite America's continued adherence to that policy.
Clinton, in an appearance before the Council on Foreign Relations, spoke two days after US President Barack Obama assured Jewish leaders in a closed-door meeting that his administration would be taking steps to address the media-driven "misperception" that Israel was the party more at fault for a stalled peace process, primarily because it wasn't completely halting settlement activity.
In discussing the peace process Wednesday, Clinton did not once say that settlement activity needed to stop - a common refrain among senior administration officials in recent weeks - and stressed that the onus for peacemaking lay as much with Arabs and Palestinians as with Israel.
"We have been working with the Israelis to deal with the issue of settlements," she said. "The last few decades, American administrations have held consistent positions on the settlement issue. And while we expect action from Israel, we recognize that these decisions are politically challenging."
"We know that progress toward peace cannot be the responsibility of the United States - or Israel - alone. Ending the conflict requires action on all sides," she said.
Clinton called on the Palestinians to improve their security reform efforts and to act forcefully against incitement. And the Arab states, she said, "have a responsibility to support the Palestinian Authority with words and deeds, to take steps to improve relations with Israel, and to prepare their publics to embrace peace and accept Israel's place in the region."
Gestures toward Israel, "however modest," could make a difference, she said, and stressed, "We are asking those who embrace the proposals to take meaningful steps now."
She also reiterated US support for the Quartet principles of renunciation of violence, recognition of Israel and respect for previous agreements before Hamas could be engaged.
On Syria, however, she said the US was interested in pursuing its engagement efforts in the hopes that "the Syrian conclusion about where they should be positioned with relation to Iran and support for terror activities will be changing." She also said Washington expected the effort "to be reciprocal."
During the hour-long speech and question-and-answer session, Clinton directed some of her harshest words at Iran. She spoke of watching "the energy of Iran's election with great admiration, only to be appalled by the manner in which the government used violence to quell the voices of the Iranian people."
She said the administration, which found those acts "deplorable and unacceptable," didn't harbor "any illusions that dialogue with the Islamic republic will guarantee success of any kind, and the prospects have certainly shifted in the weeks following the election."
But despite changing realities on the ground, as well as assessments about whether engagement could work in the new climate, the secretary of state stressed that America remained committed to the track, at the very least because it gives the US more information and shows the world the nature of the regime. She maintained that she had seen a "turn in attitude" already during her past six months in office.
"Iran does not have a right to nuclear military capacity, and we're determined to prevent that," she said. "But it does have a right to civil nuclear power if it reestablishes the confidence of the international community that it will use its programs exclusively for peaceful purposes.
"The choice is clear. We remain ready to engage with Iran, but the time for action is now. The opportunity will not remain open indefinitely," Clinton warned. She would not elaborate on future steps, but did say that "we obviously have exits along the way depending upon the consequences of the discussions."
"We are hoping to still engage, but the process might be slower," a senior State Department official said following the speech, in addressing questions on the effect the fallout from the disputed Iranian elections had on America's policy of outreach toward Iran.â€¢