Clinton Backs off Praise for Israel after Criticism

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JERUSALEM, Israel - Facing Arab criticism, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton backed off praise for Israel's progress toward peace talks, Monday, saying that while they were moving in the right direction, their offer "falls far short" of U.S. expectations.

Clinton said her praise of Israel's offer to restrict Jewish settlement activity had been intended as "positive reinforcement."

Her remarks Saturday had drawn widespread criticism from Arab nations who interpreted it as a softening of the U.S. position on settlements.

On Saturday, In a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Clinton called Israeli concessions on settlement construction "unprecedented."

"What the prime minister has offered in specifics of a restraint on the policy of settlements, which he has just described - no new starts, for example - is unprecedented in the context of prior-to negotiations," the secretary of state told reporters.

Netanyahu agreed to a building freeze in Jewish towns in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) after the 3,000 units already under construction in existing communities are completed.

While Israel is willing to begin negotiations without preconditions, the Palestinians rejected Clinton's call to restart talks.

"The Israeli government's insistence on pursuing settlement construction places the peace process at risk," said Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' spokesman Nabil Abu Rudaineh.

"We are ready to resume the peace talks only after Israel stops all settlement construction," he said, which according to the PA includes construction of new Jewish homes in east Jerusalem neighborhoods.

During her one-day visit to Israel, Clinton also met with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Lieberman said Palestinian demands to freeze all Israeli construction were torpedoing the peace process.

Clinton is scheduled to meet with Arab foreign ministers on Monday in a bid to enlist their support for restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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