Text size

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband on Tuesday criticized Israel's construction of settlements in the West Bank as "illegal" and said they represented an "obstacle" in the path of peace.

"Settlements are illegal in our view and an obstacle" that impedes efforts which seek to work out a final settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians, Miliband told a press conference at the end of a one-day visit to Jordan and talks with King Abdullah II.

The British Foreign Secretary also conferred in Amman with the U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell to review the outcome of a regional tour Mitchell and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton were carrying out to try to spur the stalled peace process.

Miliband supported the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital and expressed concern over Israeli violations in East Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War.

"The current situation is obviously particularly tense in respect to Jerusalem. We view events there with considerable concern, along with our EU and international partners," he said.

Miliband also warned that any alternative to a two-state vision as a solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would be "dark and unwelcome".

Abdullah II, for his part, urged the international community to pressure Israel to stop its "unilateral actions" in East Jerusalem, according to a royal court statement following their meeting.

"The monarch underlined the importance of the European Union's role, particularly that of Britain, in efforts aimed at ensuring the setting up of an independent Palestinian state, which is a prerequisite for Middle East peace," said the statement.

King Abdullah warned against "the dangers inherent in the Israeli unilateral actions, especially the construction of settlements and other measures that threaten the identity of Jerusalem and holy places there, and called on the international community to put pressure on Israel to halt such steps," added the statement.

Egypt: Israel taking 'racist steps' to rid Jerusalem of Arabs

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, urged the international community to protect Jerusalem from the "racist steps" being taken by Israel to change the demographics of the city.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman appealed to the United Nations Security Council with the complaint that Israel has been trying to change the demographic reality in all Palestinian territory, particularly in Jerusalem.

The Egyptian complaint came just before Clinton arrived in Cairo, culminating days of meetings across North Africa and in Israel. Clinton was met in Cairo late Tuesday by the U.S. Mideast peace envoy, Mitchell.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit also said on Tuesday that Cairo wants assurances that any Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations would ensure a Palestinian state and not be used to "waste time".

Clinton, facing Arab accusations that she had been too soft on Israel, later said in Morocco that Israel's offer to show restraint on settlements fell short of U.S. expectations.

"We want to have guarantees for the Palestinians ... that ensure them that these negotiations will not be used to waste time or to accomplish Israeli objectives against them," Aboul Gheit told a news conference in Cairo.

He said Egypt also wanted "guarantees that give them the right for a Palestinian state".

Clinton is on a whirlwind trip through the Middle East seeking to garner Arab support for the resumption of stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

She is due to arrive in Cairo later on Tuesday and will meet with Aboul Gheit and Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman before holding talks on Wednesday with President Hosni Mubarak. The talks are likely to focus on the peace process.

Aboul Gheit, asked about Clinton's stance on resuming talks, said he was hoping for clarification on Washington's view.

"I have to wait and see the reaction of the American Secretary of State as she arrives in Cairo tonight, because she gave certain explanations last night. We have to get them ourselves and then consider the issue," he said.

While in Morocco, Clinton offered aid to boost ties with the Muslim world and urged Israel, the Palestinians and Arab countries to move beyond recrimination in the search for peace.

After a weekend of heated words about the perceived U.S. tilt toward Israel on the issue of settlements in the West Bank, Clinton said it was important for all sides to "be careful about what we say" and avoid angry rhetoric.

"We are determined and persistent in the pursuit of that goal," she said in a speech at a development forum in Morocco attended by Arab ministers.

"We need to work together in a constructive spirit toward this shared goal of a comprehensive peace. I believe very strongly that it is attainable ... (and) that with your support we can find a way through."

Clinton's speech unveiled a modest new set of aid proposals aimed at building on President Barack Obama's promise in a June address in Cairo to make a "new beginning" on Washington's strained ties with the Islamic world.

But it came after Clinton sparked a new outburst of Arab anger by praising Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's offer of "restraint" on settlements without repeating earlier U.S. calls for a freeze on them, which is the Palestinian position.

Clinton repeated that the United States is committed to reaching a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians, saying this was a key to achieving a peaceful and prosperous future for the region.

Hoping to cast the United States as a helpful partner in development for Muslim communities, Clinton outlined a series of small steps to increase funding for civil society groups, youth empowerment and job promotion.

"We are committed to building ladders of opportunity to help develop the enormous talent that resides in the people of this region," she said.

The programs Clinton announced on Tuesday include a $76 million project to boost economic opportunities in Yemen, a $30 million project for vulnerable young people in Jordan and an entrepreneurship summit in Washington next year to bring Muslim innovators together with U.S. business leaders.

Taken together the new package pales in comparison to the billions of dollars in aid that Washington extends to governments in the region, including both Israel and Egypt.

Obama's Cairo speech had sparked some hope in the Arab world that Washington was ready to take a tougher line with Israel, with the U.S. president saying flatly that Israel should stop building settlements on the West Bank.

Those hopes turned to anger as Washington backed off.

On Monday, Clinton sought to control the damage, saying that her praise on Saturday for Israel's offer of restraint on settlements was aimed at encouraging moves toward dialogue.

Clinton said the Obama administration still believed that Israel's offer fell short of U.S. expectations, and urged both sides to take more positive steps to set the stage for resuming peace talks stalled since December.

"I think President Obama was absolutely clear. He wanted a halt to all settlement activity," Clinton told Al Jazeera television on Tuesday. "And perhaps those of us who work with him and for him could have been clearer in communicating that that is his policy, that is what we're committed to doing".

Clinton was due to travel to Egypt for a meeting with President Hosni Mubarak which was also expected to focus on the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

After Clinton's visit to Jerusalem, Palestinians accused the United States of "back-pedaling" on settlements and said a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks was not in sight.

Netanyahu has proposed limiting building for now to some 3,000 settler homes already approved by Israel in the West Bank. He does not regard building in East Jerusalem, annexed in defiance of international opposition, as a settlement.