Clinton's Mideast Trip Aims To Restart Talks

The secretary arrived in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh just after sunrise Sunday morning and over the next couple of days she'll meet with Arab foreign ministers gathered for a conference. Much of her time will also be spent talking with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in a bid to revive Middle East peace negotiations. Guest host Jacki Lyden speaks to NPR's Jackie Northam about Clinton's trip to the Middle East, and her reaction to the news of Dr. Abdullah Abdullah's withdrawal from Afghanistan's runoff elections.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Now, we turn to NPR's Jackie Northam, who's traveling with the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The secretary arrived in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh just after sunrise this morning. And over the next couple of days, she'll meet with Arab foreign ministers gathered for a conference. So, good morning, Jackie.

JACKIE NORTHAM: Good morning, Jacki.

LYDEN: So, did Secretary Clinton have anything to say about the big news that Afghan opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah had decided to boycott the runoff elections?

NORTHAM: She did. And actually, this was before Abdullah announced his decision. But obviously at that point it was clear what he was going to do. And Clinton said that it was Abdullah's decision to make and that these types of things happened in other countries, including the U.S. But she was firm that Abdullah's decision would not affect the legitimacy of the runoff election in Afghanistan.

And Clinton said just the fact that incumbent President Hamid Karzai agreed to the second round really was enough to bestow legitimacy on the runoff election. And in no way, she said, did Abdullah's decision take away from that.

LYDEN: Clinton's done a full day Saturday meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Jackie, trying to get some forward motion on the very stalled Middle East peace plan. Was there any progress on the plan?

NORTHAM: Well, you know, she started the day in the Gulf state of Abu Dhabi where she met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and then she finished the day in Jerusalem meeting with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and other senior government officials there.

There wasn't any major breakthrough expected on Middle East peace, but the idea was to keep pressure on both sides, show the U.S. is still very much involved and interested in finding some sort of solution to get negotiations started again. You know, talks had been stalled now for nearly a year.

But Secretary Clinton didn't make any headway. And, in fact, the process may have slid backwards a bit. The Palestinians rejected an Israeli offer regarding settlements. And that was a key precondition for the Palestinians coming back to the negotiating table.

LYDEN: What were some of the problems?

NORTHAM: Well, the Palestinians want a complete freeze on the building of Jewish settlements before they even think about entering into new negotiations. And a senior Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said that Secretary Clinton conveyed an Israeli offer to President Abbas when she met him in Abu Dhabi. The Israeli proposal was to complete the construction of 3,000 housing units and then temporarily freeze other building. But the Palestinians refused that offer point blank. They want a complete freeze.

LYDEN: So, did she have a reaction to that?

NORTHAM: She did. You know, the position of the Obama administration has been that these settlements are illegal and should stop, and Secretary Clinton said that that position remains firm. However, she also said Israel's offer of a, quote, "restraint" was unprecedented. Clinton didn't say she agreed with Israel's proposal, but she made it clear that it shouldn't be any reason to prevent restarting the peace talks. It's just part of the negotiating process and that the U.S. was trying to narrow the gap, the differences between the two sides.

But clearly there was a softer tone regarding the settlements, and that, in turn, is a departure from the really very firm stance the Obama administration has taken until now.

LYDEN: Well, now you're in Marrakesh with the secretary where she'll meet with foreign ministers from Arab countries. Presumably, the settlements and peace talks will be a part of what goes on at the conference?

NORTHAM: Yes. Her aides say that she will be holding both bilateral and multilateral talks before and during the conference, and certainly a part of that will be the discussions on how to shore up support for the peace plan and Palestinian President Abbas. And, you know, just ideas how to get the talks started again. Those are a big part of the talks that she'll be having, but there will be a variety of other issues as well.

LYDEN: NPR's Jackie Northam in Marrakesh, Morocco. Thanks very much, Jackie.

NORTHAM: Thank you, Jacki.

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