Kim Ghattas
BBC World News
November 4, 2009 - 1:00am

Hillary Clinton was planning to be home by now after a week-long trip, but instead she took a detour through Egypt for talks with top officials including President Hosni Mubarak, looking for help from a country that is key to any progress in the Middle East peace process.

In her discussions she is expected to try to undo some of the damage done by her comments in the past few days while also looking for ways to keep some semblance of movement in the moribund Middle East peace process.

The Obama administration is worried that in the absence of any talks, violence might resume.

"There's value in having the process. Without it, things could go from bad to worse," said PJ Crowley, a spokesperson for Mrs Clinton, who's travelling with her.

"We recognise that things have stalled. We're looking at a variety of ways that increase the interaction between the parties in some form."

Other US officials have suggested this could involve a low level dialogue between the parties in the absence of any direct negotiations between President Mahmoud Abbas and the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

This falls short of where the Obama administration was hoping to be by now, but a senior State department official said it was like a bicycle: "You have to keep moving forward, otherwise you fall off."

Mrs Clinton's visit to the region, which started in Abu Dhabi on Friday, was meant to help bring some momentum to the stalled peace process and narrow the gap between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Instead, she came close to derailing all efforts when she praised Israel's restraint on settlement expansion as "unprecedented" after a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday.

It drew angry Arab reactions as the Arab League's Secretary General Amr Moussa warned that failure was in the air.

A senior US state department official said it was unclear why Mrs Clinton had made those comments, suggesting she had taken her own team by surprise.

In Marrakesh, she sought to moderate her statements by adding a caveat. She said that while Israel's offer to restrain settlement expansion was unprecedented, it was still short of US wishes.

She also emphasised that the US position on settlements had not changed.

"I will offer positive reinforcements to the parties when I believe they are taking steps that support the objective of reaching a two state solution," she said, even if those steps were not exactly what she was seeking.

On Saturday in Jerusalem, Mrs Clinton said Israel was offering to build no new settlements, expropriate no land, allow no new construction or approvals - something the US administration says no other Israeli government has offered before outside of negotiations.

Construction already under way would continue but no new construction would start, according to a US official.

But this would apply only to the West Bank and not East Jerusalem, which is unacceptable to the Palestinians.

Beyond the initial outrage, the damage done to the Obama administration's standing in the Middle East on the issue can be overcome.

Wary of alienating a US president who has been forthcoming and engaged on the issue, several Arab officials were keen to stress they still had a lot of faith in Barack Obama.

In Marrakesh, Amr Moussa said he had a reservoir of hope, while Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki said the Palestinians appreciated Mr Obama's efforts, which he described as sincere.

The Obama administration has made peace in this conflicted region a foreign policy priority, describing it as in the interest of Americas national security.

Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton had also repeatedly said they wanted to see a full Israeli settlement freeze, with no exceptions.

But nine months into the administration, US Middle East peace envoy Senator George Mitchell has found himself bogged down in discussions about how many housing units the Israelis could still build on settlements, based on construction permits already issued.

The Palestinian foreign minister said they had warned Mr Mitchell against going into these details with the Israelis.

"We told him be careful, this is a trap," he said.

"He said I'm not worried I know exactly how to deal with this matter. I'm immune to such things. It seems that such immunity is not that effective."

Palestinians insist they cannot sit down for negotiations without a full freeze.

Although that bar was set this high by Washington itself, US officials now feel Palestinians are being stubborn.

The back and forth between Americans and Palestinians is like a ping pong match - the Americans say the freeze should be not be a pre-condition for talks.

The Palestinians reply that it's not a pre-condition but part of Israel's obligations under the 2003 Road Map.

The Americans point out that the Palestinians never before demanded a full freeze of settlements ahead of negotiations.

Palestinians counter by saying that past experience has shown them this was a mistake.

The Americans may have the last word when they say that not talking gives the Israelis a free pass and does not help the Palestinians move towards a two-state solution.

A US official said talks can start while negotiators are still working on getting both parties to fulfil their obligations.

In Cairo, Mrs Clinton may try to convince Mr Mubarak to press the Palestinians to accept the restraint that the Israelis are offering.

Mr Malki warned against such moves, saying accepting anything less than a full freeze would seriously jeopardise the legitimacy and even the existence of the Palestinian Authority.

Another US official said the administration was looking at how to narrow the gap on the issue of settlements or find a way to arch over it without giving any details.

"If this particular path, we think, can't get us there, we'll look for others," said PJ Crowley.

Aside from the idea to keep low-level talks going to maintain a process, some Middle East experts in the region and in Washington have suggested that a way around the settlement freeze stumbling block was for the two parties to go straight to final status negotiations, and start discussing the issue of borders.

Asked whether the Palestinians would consider this, Mr Malki said that "if the Americans can say 'yes we will provide you with guarantees that the Palestinian state that will be created will be in the 1967 borders with east Jerusalem as its capital and this will be a fact, not for negotiation' … then we will look into that".

He described it as reverse engineering where the end game would be clear - a Palestinian state on the territory occupied by Israel since 1967, with negotiations about a very small percentage of land swaps to compensate the Palestinians for land where Israel would maintain some settlements.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017