Clinton in Morocco for Talks on Middle East

By Scott Stearns

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Morocco for a meeting of foreign ministers from the Middle East and the world’s leading industrialized nations. They will discuss democracy in the region and ways to resolve the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Secretary Clinton came to Marrakech for the sixth Forum for the Future, which joins civil society groups and the private sector with foreign ministers from the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations and the Middle East to talk about democracy and resolving conflict in the region.

The Israeli/Palestinian crisis is high on the agenda. Clinton met separately with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on her way to Morocco.

President Abbas says the Palestinian Authority will not return to talks on a two-state solution unless Israel first halts the expansion of Jewish settlements in disputed areas.

Clinton says the settlement issue should not block further talks.

In a news conference with Prime Minister Netanyahu in Jerusalem, she called his offer to limit that expansion “unprecedented.”

“There has never been a precondition,” said Clinton. “It has always been an issue within the negotiations. What the Prime Minister has offered, in specifics of restraint on the policy of settlements which he has just described, no new starts, for example – is unprecedented, in the context of prior to negotiations.”

Palestinian leaders say the Obama administration is allowing Israel to sidestep conditions in a 2003 agreement calling for a freeze of all settlement activity, not simply the restraint that Prime Minister Netanyahu is offering.

“So from our point of view and from the point of view of the international law, and according to the Roadmap, Israel has to first to stop the expansion of settlements in order to contribute to preparing the ground for meaningful peace negotiations,” said Ghassan al-Khatib, who heads the Palestinian government’s press office.

U.S. State Department Spokesman Ian Kelly says Clinton and U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell hope to use this meeting in Morocco to get Israeli and Palestinian officials back to the negotiating table as soon as possible.

“She plans to consult with foreign ministers from the region at that time. Also, Special Envoy Mitchell will go back to the region,” said Kelly. “So we do call on everyone to lower the rhetoric, to avoid situations that enflame the situation. And everybody should keep their eyes on the goal here of a comprehensive peace, and to get there we have to get the two sides to the point where they can sit down and have meaningful negotiations.”

Morocco is jointly hosting this forum with Italy, which holds the rotating G-8 presidency. The two day meeting will focus on improving human development, democracy, rule of law, and economic growth.

The talks include representatives from the West Bank and Gaza as well as Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Libya. Officials from Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen are also expected to participate alongside G-8 delegations from Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, and the United Kingdom. 

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