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Hillary Clinton: A quiet brand of statecraft

Hillary Clinton has been loyal to President Obama, her one-time rival. Now she's seeking to redefine U.S. foreign policy for a new century, even as the latest mideast peace talks test her skills as a negotiator.

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But Philip Gordon, assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, was on the phone, telling her that the signing was in jeopardy. An Armenian official had just warned him that his boss was balking at some of the wording the Turkish foreign minister planned to use in his statement.

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"She thought she was coming in for a signing ceremony and instead ... she got down in the weeds on the details," recalls Mr. Gordon.

Despite the presence of the French and Russian foreign ministers, it was the American secretary of State the two sides turned to. Clinton tried some shuttle diplomacy, but neither side budged. She then proposed to her American entourage a simple idea: How about if there are no statements, just the signing, with the accord doing the talking?

Gordon and others nixed the idea as unworkable, and the effort to finesse the statements resumed – unsuccessfully. But Clinton remained adamant that a way forward be found. "At some point she passed me a note that said, 'Why can't my idea work?' " Gordon says. This time the idea of no statements was proposed – and accepted by both parties. "You have to be creative in these situations," says Gordon. "And she was."

The tense dealmaking in Zurich is one example aides cite as evidence that Clinton is a skilled negotiator. They note, too, that she was a senator, and you don't get legislation passed without knowing how to broker deals – a skill that they believe she will be able to call on in the Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Actually a debate rages in Washington over just how much of a role the United States, and Clinton as secretary of State, should play in the renewed talks. Even if the negotiations get past the end-of-September expiration of Israel's moratorium on settlement construction, the question of when Clinton should be in the room, and when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas should be left to hammer things out on their own, draws sharply differing responses.

When Obama invited the two leaders to Washington earlier this month to formally restart direct talks, Clinton told them neither she nor anyone else from the US would be with them at all times at the negotiating table. What worries some specialists is that Clinton's approach will be too much like past US peace-process efforts – with too little that is innovative and game-changing.

"If all you do is restart the same old talks, all it does is get you back to the messy status quo," says Mr. Clemons. "We need to do more about Hamas than ignore its presence in the room. We need to think in innovative strategic terms that get us to a new game board where Arabs and Israelis see a two-state solution as a move toward rolling back Iran in the region. But unless Hillary has something up her sleeve, I don't see her reshaping the board in a way a secretary of State should."