Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged Israel in unusually blunt terms Wednesday to completely halt settlements on land that Palestinians claim as part of a future state of their own.
Clinton said President Barack Obama had made clear last week during talks at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that stopping settlements is a key part of moving toward a deal establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
"He wants to see a stop to settlements—not some settlements, not outposts, not 'natural growth' exceptions," Clinton said, referring in the last case to population growth on existing Israeli settlements in the West Bank from births and from allowances for adult offspring of settlers to buy homes near their parents.
"We think it is in the best interests (of the peace process) that settlement expansion cease," Clinton added, with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit at her side. "That is our position. That is what we have communicated very clearly. ... And we intend to press that point."
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is putting settlements at the center of his talks with Obama at the White House on Thursday, and he has said he won't resume peace talks without a freeze. Clinton was having dinner Wednesday with Abbas.
Obama has made clear that he supports the creation of a Palestinian state, and in remarks last week he noted that under a previous arrangement known as the "roadmap," which dates to the Bush administration, the Israelis agreed to halt West Bank settlements, along with certain steps by the Palestinians.
"Settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward," Obama said. "That's a difficult issue. I recognize that, but it's an important one and it has to be addressed."
The U.S. considers Israel's 121 settlements to be obstacles to peace, since they are built on territory claimed by the Palestinians. Netanyahu sees it differently, raising concerns of a looming rift with Washington.
Netanyahu says he is willing to resume peace talks immediately but has not said he supports the creation of a Palestinian state.
Netanyahu also says existing Israeli settlements should continue to expand to accommodate "natural growth" in their populations. He also has ruled out ceding sovereignty in east Jerusalem, which Palestinians want as the capital of a future state. Israel captured the area in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed it.
Clinton was more explicit in her comments about freezing settlements than her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, who said last Nov. 7 on a visit to the West Bank: "Settlement activity, both actions and announcements, is damaging for the atmosphere of negotiations. And the party's actions should be encouraging confidence, not undermining it. And no party should take steps that could prejudice the outcome of negotiations."
In his joint appearance with Clinton at the State Department on Wednesday, Gheit was asked by a reporter whether the Obama administration differs from the Bush administration in its approach to the issue of human rights in Egypt.
Gheit said Obama administration officials express their concern but also listen. "And that is very important to listen and to understand where you come from" and to explain U.S. reasoning, he added. "I think they are very much different than the Bush administration. I wouldn't characterize by that as good or bad, but there are differences, in attitude at least."