US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s just-completed Middle East tour has left Arab leaders openly frustrated with the Obama administration, with some predicting the imminent collapse of the latest US-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative.
"I’m really afraid that we are about to see a failure,” said Arab League chief Amr Moussa earlier this week in an interview with the BBC. “Failure is in the atmosphere all over."
Clinton left Cairo Wednesday after meeting with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Her multi-stop tour, coming days after US Middle East Envoy George Mitchell also toured the region, was meant to help restart talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority—something President Obama declared was an immediate priority upon taking office.
Instead Arab nations seem to be digging in and rallying behind Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ refusal to return to the negotiating table without a full freeze on Israeli settlement building in the occupied West Bank.
Clinton drew widespread Arab criticism over the weekend when she praised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest offer on settlements as “unprecedented” and urged Palestinians to begin negotiations.
"This is an opportunity for both sides to try to move forward together, to get into negotiations, and to realize the goal that many of us around this table have supported and worked for for many years," she said in Jerusalem.
Netanyahu has rebuffed Obama’s call for a total freeze on all Israeli settlement building. Instead, he has offered a ban on construction of new settlements while allowing existing settlements to grow and continuing construction in occupied East Jerusalem. That falls far short of Arab expectations and Clinton’s apparent endorsement prompted accusations that Washington has surrendered to Israeli pressure.
“In my opinion, nobody can talk about the Road Map as long as nobody can stop Israel from continuing settlement construction,” said Moustafa Barghouti, an independent member of the Palestinian parliament.
At a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Marrakesh, Morocco earlier this week, Moussa fumed, “Israel can get away with anything without any firm stand [from America].”
After hearing from Moussa and others in Morrocco, Clinton quickly added Wednesday’s Cairo visit to her itinerary and worked to smooth over the controversy.
“We view Israeli settlement activity as not legitimate,” she told National Public Radio from Cairo. “The Israeli offer was not at all what we would prefer. It did not go far enough, but it went farther than anybody ever has before.”
Clinton acknowledged that her Jerusalem comments had upset Arab allies whose support would be crucial for any peace deal.
“I don’t think it created a long-term problem, but it did create a lot of questions,” she said. “The president always knew this would be hard. Our goal is to re-launch negotiations as soon as practical. And along the way to that we’re going to keep talking and listening and encouraging and prodding.”
By the end of her visit, Clinton seemed to have at least performed a bit of damage control. Standing alongside his American counterpart, Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit said he and Clinton spoke “very clearly and very candidly” and that Egypt understood, but didn’t necessarily agree with, the US position.
“The United States has not changed its position of rejecting settlements and the settlement activities. And the United States is calling on the resumption of negotiations,” he said.
What Abul Gheit didn’t say was whether Egypt was willing to help the US nudge the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. Egypt has already publicly supported Abbas’s vow to boycott negotiations until all settlement construction stops.
“We feel that Israel is hindering the process,” Abul Gheit said.