In the face of Arab and Palestinian criticism, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday back-pedalled slightly on the rousing endorsement she gave Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's settlement policy during her brief trip to Israel on Saturday.
Speaking to reporters in Morocco, she said: "The Obama administration's position on settlements is clear, unequivocal and it has not changed. As the president has said on many occasions, the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements," Clinton said.
She and US special envoy George Mitchell both visited Israel this weekend in hopes of jump-starting the stalled Israeli Palestinian peace talks, but left without any public evidence of progress.
Clinton met with Netanyahu on Saturday night during her one-day visit.
Mitchell spoke with Netanyahu both on Friday and again on Monday, before he left the country after a five-day trip here. Mitchell then met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Amman.
The Prime Minister's office refused to comment on Monday's meeting.
Netanyahu has agreed to sit down with the Palestinians without any preconditions, while Abbas has insisted that Israel must halt construction in the settlements before he will talk about peace with the Israelis.
On Saturday night, after Abbas rebuffed her peace efforts, Clinton praised Netanyahu's moratorium on new construction in the settlements, a move which she said was "unprecedented." She added that the US did not believe that there should be preconditions for the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks.
Her praise Saturday of Israel's offer, however, drew widespread criticism from Arab nations who interpreted it as a softening of the US position on settlements, which stand in the way of a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
"I believe that the US condones continued settlement expansion," Palestinian government spokesman Ghassan Khatib said Sunday in a rare public criticism of Washington.
Palestinians have taken issue with Israel's insistence that it would continue to build the 3,000 homes now under construction in West Bank settlements.
"This offer falls far short of what we would characterize as our position or what our preference would be," Clinton acknowledged on Monday.
But the moratorium, Clinton said, "if it is acted upon, will be an unprecedented restriction on settlements and would have a significant and meaningful effect on restraining their growth."
During a photo-taking session with her Moroccan counterpart, Clinton was asked by a reporter about the Arab reaction, and she responded by reading from a written statement that appeared designed to counter the skepticism about the Obama administration's views on settlements.
She also called on the Israelis to do more to improve "movement and access" for Palestinians and on Israeli security arrangements.
She added, however, that Israel deserved praise for moving in the right direction.
"I will offer positive reinforcement to either of the parties when I believe they are taking steps that support the objective of reaching a two-state solution," she said.
In her statement to reporters, Clinton also stressed that the Palestinian authorities deserved credit for what she called "unprecedented" steps to improve security in the West Bank and praised the Palestinians for progress in training their security forces.
Clinton was flying later Monday to the southern-central city of Ouarzazate for an audience with King Muhammad VI. Later she was returning to Marrakech for talks with foreign ministers of several Persian Gulf nations.
Clinton also was expected to meet separately with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, who has rejected US appeals for improved Arab relations with Israel as a way to help restart Middle East peace talks, saying the Jewish state is not interested in a deal.
Clinton was in Marrakech to attend a regional conference called Forum for the Future, with representatives of nations of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as advanced industrialized countries. It is the final stop on a weeklong journey that began Wednesday in Pakistan.
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