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Clinton travels to a hardened Israel

On Syria, Iran, and a Palestinian state, Israel's new leadership disagrees with the Obama administration.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer / March 4, 2009

FIRST VISIT: Hillary Clinton laid a wreath at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem Monday during her first visit as US secretary of State. Later, she met with top Israeli officials.

Sebastian Scheiner/AP

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Embarking on her first trip to the region as secretary of State, Hillary Clinton pledged that the Obama administration will unshakably support Israel's security and vigorously pursue the creation of a Palestinian state.

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That's not substantially different from Washington's stated Middle East policy in recent years. But Mrs. Clinton is likely to find herself and US policy at loggerheads with the new government of Israel, soon to be headed by the conservative Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Clinton acknowledged for the first time that the US was dispatching two State Department officials to Syria, a country that's on the US list of terrorist sponsors. "We are reaching out to determine what, if any, areas of cooperation and engagement are productive, and that includes Syria," she said.

From the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to dialogue with Syria to trying a different tack with Iran over its nuclear program, the Obama foreign-policy team's approach looks markedly different from Mr. Netanyahu's.

How Clinton handles those gaps will ultimately shape how effective a role she can play in a mired Middle East peace process.

After a meeting Monday with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Clinton said that as good friends, the US and Israel could sustain differences of opinion, adding jokingly: "Israel is not shy about expressing opinions" about US policy.

"We happen to believe that moving toward a two-state solution is in Israel's best interests," Clinton said. "It is our assessment that eventually, the inevitability of working toward a two-state solution is inescapable."

But Netanyahu, a longtime critic of the Oslo peace process that brought about the creation of the Palestinian Authority, isn't committed to a two-state solution. His refusal to include a stated promise to pursue such a peace deal in his government guidelines is the main reason Ms. Livni, head of the centrist Kadima party, has spurned offers to join Netanyahu's coalition.

In response to a question at Monday's press conference with Clinton, Livni took an indirect swipe at Netanyahu's values, reaffirming her decision to become an opposition leader rather than join Netanyahu's government.

"I take my pursuit of a two-state solution as a meaningful stance and not as a slogan," Livni said. She said that any leader who is dedicated to maintaining Israel as a state that is both Jewish and democratic cannot come to any other conclusion. "Anyone who wants to defend those two values knows that." She said that a two-state solution was the real route to "return hope, not just to the Palestinians, but to us."

But Livni will not be foreign minister for long. She leaves office as soon as Netanyahu can forge a coalition government, which is widely expected to happen in the next two weeks. The transitional state of affairs at Israel's foreign ministry, where Clinton was hosted for lunch, gave the secretary's visit the odd feeling of a visitor being hosted in the home of someone who is in the process of being evicted. Today's Israeli policymakers, one foreign ministry official acknowledged, are going to be tomorrow's opposition politicians.

Despite that, the Obama administration was keen to get working now and not wait for the establishment of a new government in Israel.

The challenge of Gaza

But the Palestinian political scene is also in flux, with the leading parties, Fatah and Hamas, discussing the possibility of a national unity government. Sunday's donor conference in Egypt, which raised $4.4 billion for reconstruction aid to Gaza following 22 devastating days of war there in December and January, was largely what brought Clinton to the region now, despite the political ambiguities.