Taking a softer tone on Israeli settlement building, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has urged Arab countries to take immediate steps to normalize relations with Israel.
"We know that progress toward peace cannot be the responsibility of the US or Israel alone," Clinton said in a major speech to the Council on Foreign Relations on Wednesday, July 15.
"Ending the conflict requires action on all sides."
Clinton said the Palestinians have to improve security and "act forcefully" against what she described as incitement against Israel.
"And Arab states have a responsibility to support the Palestinian Authority with words and deeds, to take steps to improve relations with Israel and to prepare their publics to embrace peace and accept Israel’s place in the region."
Clinton welcomed the 2002 Saudi-drafted Arab peace initiative, which calls for normalized ties with Israel in return for a full Israeli withdrawal from all occupied Arab lands.
"The Saudi peace proposal supported by more than 20 nations was a positive step, but we believe that more is needed.
"So we are asking those who embrace the proposal to take meaningful steps now."
Only Egypt and Jordan have signed peace agreements and have full diplomatic ties with Israel.
"Anwar Sadat and King Hussein crossed important thresholds, and their boldness and vision mobilized peace constituencies in Israel and paved the way for lasting agreements," Clinton said, referring to the late Egyptian and Jordanian leaders.
"By providing support to the Palestinians and offering an opening, however modest, to the Israelis, the Arab states could have the same impact."
Clinton took a softer tone on Israel’s settlement activities, stopping short of reiterating previous calls by her administration for a total settlement freeze.
"We have been working with the Israelis to deal with the issue of settlements, to ease the living conditions of Palestinians and create circumstances that can lead to the establishment of a viable Palestinian state," she said.
"For the last few decades American administrations have held consistent positions on the settlement issue, and while we expect action from Israel, we recognize those decisions are politically challenging."
Clinton’s new tone is in sharp contrast to previous remarks by President Barack Obama and other administration officials who have repeatedly demanded a full freeze on settlement building, including the so-called natural growth.
Israel’s daily Maariv said last week that the administration has back tracked on its demand for a full freeze, allowing Israel to continue building 2500 settlement units and linking such a freeze to a pan-Arab normalization with Tel Aviv.
Under the internationally-backed roadmap, Israel must freeze all settlement activities and dismantle outposts constructed after March 2001.
The international community considers all Jewish settlements on the occupied Palestinian land illegal.
Taking up the Iranian issue, Clinton renewed a "limited" US offer for talks with Tehran over its nuclear program.
"The choice is clear. We remain ready to engage with Iran, but the time for action is now," she stressed.
"The opportunity will not remain open indefinitely."
Clinton has called for "stricter" sanctions against Iran if it fails to respond to America’s engagement efforts.
"Iran can become a constructive actor in the region if it stops threatening its neighbors and supporting terrorism.
"It can assume a responsible position in the international community if it fulfills its obligations on human rights."
Obama said last week Iran had until September — the time of the annual UN General Assembly — to accept negotiations or face the consequences.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy was more pointed, saying Iran risked tougher sanctions if it did not agree to talks.
Iran’s foreign minister said last weekend they were preparing a new package of political, security and international issues to put to the West.
Clinton refused to rule out a possible military option against Iran.
The Times reported on Thursday, July 16, that Israel and Western countries are shaping a deal for an Israeli strike on Iran in return for flexibility on settlements and peace talks.
US Vice President Joseph Biden said last week that his country would not stand in the way of Israeli military action aimed at the Iranian nuclear program.
On Afghanistan, Clinton held out an olive branch to Taliban fighters willing to lay down their arms.
"We understand that not all those who fight with the Taliban support Al-Qaeda, or believe in the extremist policies the Taliban pursued when in power," she said.
"Today we and our Afghan allies stand ready to welcome anyone supporting the Taliban, who renounces Al-Qaeda, lays down their arms, and is willing to participate in the free and open society that is enshrined in the Afghan constitution."
Obama has said that Washington is ready to reach out to the Taliban, who are willing to lay down arms.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai also said on Monday that he would seek to open peace talks with the Taliban if re-elected in August.
Taliban have been ousted by the US in late 2001 but have since been waging a guerilla war against the US-led foreign troops.
According to figures compiled by The Associated Press, at least 46 foreign troops, including 24 Americans, had been killed in Afghanistan this month, matching the highest full-month toll of the past eight years.
Only half way though the month, this is certain to make July the deadliest month for US-led forces since the invasion.