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Hillary Clinton urged to put pressure on Israel over settlements

US secretary of state due to hold talks with Palestinian leaders in occupied 
West Bank

    * Rory McCarthy in Jerusalem
    * guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 4 March 2009 09.02 GMT
   

Hillary Clinton will meet Palestinian leaders. Photograph: Associated Press

Hillary Clinton was today due to meet Palestinian leaders in the occupied West 
Bank, where she will be asked to put pressure on Israel to stop its settlement 
expansion.

On her first trip to the Palestinian territories as the US secretary of state, 
Clinton will meet the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and the prime 
minister, Salam Fayyad.

Speaking in Jerusalem yesterday, Clinton said the creation of an independent 
Palestinian state was now "inescapable".

However, Palestinian leaders say the continued expansion of Jewish settlements 
across east Jerusalem and the West Bank make it increasingly difficult for that 
state to be established.

"The main point is that the Israeli government needs to accept the two-state 
solution and ... stop settlement expansion," Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian 
negotiator, said.

Although Abbas has held peace talks with Israeli leaders since late 2007, he 
has little to show for it.

On Monday, the Israeli group Peace Now reported that the Israeli housing 
ministry was planning to build at least 73,000 housing units in West Bank 
settlements.

The organisation said 15,000 units had already been approved and another 58,000 
were awaiting approval.

Almost 500,000 settlers now live in east Jerusalem and the West Bank. All 
settlements are illegal under international law.

The Palestinians will ask Clinton to put pressure on Israel to open its 
crossings into Gaza to allow in materials for rebuilding after the recent 
offensive.

"We want the US to help us open the passages to get material for reconstruction 
into Gaza," Erekat said.

Reports in the Israeli press today said that, in a meeting yesterday, Clinton 
had pressed the Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak, to allow more aid into 
Gaza.

Clinton said the US would send two senior officials to Syria for "preliminary 
conversations", an apparent sign of a new softening of US policy.

US officials said Jeffrey Feltman, the state department's leading Middle East 
diplomat, would travel to Damascus along with Dan Shapiro, of the White House's 
national security council.

Last week, Feltman held talks lasting for almost two hours with the Syrian 
ambassador to Washington – the highest-level contact between the countries 
since the start of the Obama government.

Washington recalled its ambassador to Damascus in 2005 after the assassination 
of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in Beirut.

Obama's administration has been reviewing its policy towards Syria and is 
considering whether to send an ambassador again.

At a conference to raise aid for the Palestinians, held in Egypt on Monday, 
Clinton shook hands and spoke briefly with the Syrian foreign minister, Walid 
al-Moallem.

Clinton's announcement came after she met the Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi 
Livni. She also met the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, the opposition leader 
and probable next prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and the current prime 
minister, Ehud Olmert.

Clinton has said she wants to pursue peace between Israel and the Arab world on 
"many fronts", suggesting she might encourage Israel and Syria to talk.

Some Israeli figures believe an agreement with Syria might be easier to achieve 
than a peace deal with the Palestinians.

However, Netanyahu has appeared to rule out negotiations with Syria by refusing 
to give up the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in 1967.

Netanyahu – who is likely to lead a narrow, rightwing government – has also 
stopped short of endorsing a two-state solution to end the conflict between 
Israel and the Palestinians, which may put his government at odds with the US 
administration.

Clinton said a two-state deal was in "Israel's best interests".

"The United States will be vigorously engaged in the pursuit of a two-state 
solution every step of the way," she said. "The inevitability of working toward 
a two-state solution is inescapable."

17 Feb 2009:



    * guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2009

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