'US opposes all West Bank expansion'

US secretary of state says White House against any construction, including for natural growth.

Clinton whistles 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Clinton whistles 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday that the United States would present detailed plans on the peace process to the parties as part of its efforts to jump-start negotiations. "We are going to be putting forward very specific proposals to the Israelis and the Palestinians. That's what Senator Mitchell has been doing over the last couple of days," Clinton said at a press conference following her lunch meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit. Mitchell has been in London this week meeting with top Israeli officials Dan Meridor, minister of intelligence services, and National Security Council head Uzi Arad over issues including settlement activity and Iran, in discussions the State Department characterized as a follow-up to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's visit to Washington last week. Though the Obama administration has pledged intensified Middle East diplomacy since the beginning of its term, Clinton's comments went the furthest to date in suggesting that the US would make its own proposals for resolving the conflict that multiple American administration plans have failed to resolve. Such US initiative has been urged by Arab countries, beginning with Jordan's King Abdullah during his own White House visit in April. At that time he also said the Arab countries would themselves have to contribute to the process, a theme Gheit echoed during Wednesday afternoon's press conference. "We have been discussing the need for an American major action to expedite the process," he said. "We - all of us, the Quartet, the international community, the Arab countries - [need] to show support and understanding and to push them together, allow them to negotiate in direct negotiations." Greater participation has been a central piece of the US administration's approach thus far, with Clinton stressing that "we've also been reaching out to governments of Arab nations, asking what they could be expected to do as we move forward to build confidence and to create a good atmosphere for decisions to be made." US officials see the Arab League peace plan as providing a possible basis for negotiations. That plan calls for an Israeli withdrawal from all land captured in the Six Day War, as well as a resolution on the Palestinian refugee issue, in exchange for normalization with the entire Arab world. After meeting with Gheit, Clinton was set to host Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that evening, as part of a three-day trip to Washington that will culminate with an Oval Office visit Thursday afternoon. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was originally supposed to be received at the White House as well this week, but canceled due to the sudden death of his grandchild. He will meet with US President Barack Obama next Thursday when the president makes a long-awaited speech to the Muslim world. The US administration is using these visits with Middle East leaders to shore up support for its program and seek regional participation. On Tuesday, Obama also added a stop in Saudi Arabia - the original authors of the Arab peace plan - to the beginning of his overseas trip. Nabil Abu Znaid, the head of the Palestinian Authority's mission to the US, praised Obama's efforts and his "global" approach. "I think that's why he wants to visit Saudi Arabia. He's visiting Egypt and he wants to have lots of contacts with countries that can influence the region," Abu Znaid said. "Peace would start between the Palestinians and the Israelis... but we need help towards peace, not the other way. So think the international community will help." Obama is expected to discuss Iran, terrorism and oil with Saudi leaders, as well as include them in the conversation over his emerging Middle East peace plan. Though Saudi Arabia is a major regional force, it has had a low profile during the Obama administration's first few months, despite the flurry of activity regarding the region. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs spoke on Wednesday about the importance of addressing the peace effort with the Saudis but said that it was not an effort to iron out details of a major plan to be announced at Obama's Cairo speech. "I think he's going to discuss elements of how to bring about peace in the Middle East. But the Cairo speech is not intended to lay out some detailed map for how one gets to that," he said. Gibbs also said the administration was "heartened" by Netanyahu's comments about resuming talks, adding, "We're hopeful that the same goes for Mr. Abbas when we see him on Thursday." Abu Znaid said that, in addition to pressing for a negotiating process that has a defined timeframe leading to the creation of a Palestinian state, Abbas would also tell Obama that "we'd like to see something on the ground, especially with settlements." During Wednesday's press conference, Clinton stressed the US position that settlement construction must stop, even though Netanyahu has indicated "natural growth" in major blocs was set continue. "The president was very clear when Prime Minister Netanyahu was here. He wants to see a stop to settlements - not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions," she said. "That is our position, that is what we have communicated very clearly, not only to the Israelis, but to the Palestinians and others. And we intend to press that point." She did not elaborate on what the administration had in mind when she referenced "very specific proposals," saying only, "We are making a very concerted effort. We have a well thought-out approach that we are pursuing. We have a lot of support from countries such as Egypt, but ultimately this is up to the two parties."