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Clinton, Israeli Counterpart, Clash Over Settlements

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman clashed publicly Wednesday on the issue of Israeli settlement expansion, on Lieberman's first Washington visit in his new post. The Obama administration says Israel should halt all settlement-building to clear the way for renewed Middle East peace talks.

U.S. officials have welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's acceptance in his policy speech Sunday of the idea of a demilitarized Palestinian state, but it is clear the two allies differ starkly on the settlement issue as U.S. envoy George Mitchell attempts to broker new Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The Obama administration has been pressing Israel not only to dismantle unauthorized settler outposts in the West Bank but to completely halt the expansion of existing settlements. However at a press appearance with Clinton after an hour-long meeting, Lieberman made clear his government is standing by its insistence that so-called natural growth of settlements be allowed.

"We think that, you know, that in every place around the world a baby gets born and people get married and some pass away," said Avigdor Lieberman. "And we cannot accept this vision about absolutely, completely freezing settlements. I think that we must keep the natural growth. The Prime Minister [Netanyahu] spoke about it in his speech. I think that this position, this approach it's very clear."

Lieberman, a hard-liner in the right-of-center Israeli government who himself lives in a West Bank settlement, said Israel had understandings with the Bush administration that it could expand settlements that it anticipated keeping in a future territorial compromise with the Palestinians.

Clinton, however, standing alongside Lieberman, said the new administration has examined the record and consulted former Bush-era officials, and has determined there is no oral or enforceable U.S. agreement to allow natural growth.

"As President Obama, Senator Mitchell and I have said, we want to see a stop to the settlements," said Hillary Clinton. "That is an important and essential part of pursuing the efforts leading to a comprehensive peace agreement and the creation of a Palestinian state next to an Israeli Jewish state that is secure in its borders and future."

Clinton reaffirmed that a commitment to Israel's security is and will remain a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy, while Lieberman said his government is ready for immediate direct talks with the Palestinians.

U.S. envoy Mitchell, who has been shuttling to the Middle East and Europe to try to broker peace talks, indicated Tuesday he believes an agreement to restart negotiations is achievable within a matter of weeks.

Mitchell is due to meet Prime Minister Netanyahu in Paris next week for talks looming as pivotal for the U.S. diplomatic initiative.