Clinton travels to a hardened Israel

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

By , Staff writer

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    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.
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    LISTENING HARD: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Israel's conservative Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu Monday in Jerusalem.
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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.

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.

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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.

Clinton said that the aid pledged to Gaza, including $900 million from the US, needed to be make its way to the people who needed it most. But the continued rocket fire by Hamas-affiliated militants was making it a hard case to argue, she said. "It's very difficult to solve this dilemma while Israel is still under rocket attack," Clinton said.

Many of Clinton's meetings Monday with Israeli leaders focused on the issue on which Israelis across the political spectrum share similar views: Iran, and the Obama administration's plans to take a more diplomacy-oriented approach to dealing with that country's developing nuclear program.

Israel's Haaretz newspaper said that Livni was to present Clinton with what Israel considers are red lines that it would like the Obama administration to bear in mind as it attempts dialogue with Iran.

Indeed, Netanyahu told reporters after his meeting with Clinton that "there must be a deadline to [an offer of] dialogue with Iran." But he added that "our shared goal is the need for creative thinking to move forward and out of the maze."

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that he told Clinton that dialogue has to be backed by the threat of harsher United Nations economic sanctions. Israeli officials have also questioned whether it wouldn't make more sense to delay talks with Iran until after Iran's presidential elections in June.

Getting serious with Syria?

Clinton's move to reopen channels with Syria represents of the most tangible examples yet of a changed approach to the complexities of the Middle East. The Bush administration was opposed to talking with Syria even when it turned out that Israel was quite interested in rejuvenating its line of communication with Damascus, going so far as to hold unofficial talks in Turkey.

She said the two US officials have been dispatched to Syria in order to initiate "preliminary conversations." She added: "We don't engage in discussions for the sake of having conversations. There has to be a purpose to them, there has to be some benefit accruing to the United States and our allies."

Netanyahu has never ruled out talks with Syria. But during his recent election campaign, he promised voters that "The Golan [Heights] will remain in our hands." He said that the border was Israel's quietest, "because we are on the Golan, not below it." Israel occupied the territory in the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict, and its return to Syria has long been Damascus's starting point for peace talks.

Damascus is homebase for the top Hamas leadership, a situation that makes some hawkish Israelis demand the continued ostracism of Syria in the West, but leads others to argue for engagement that could co-opt Syria to play a more constructive regional role.

Jonathan Spyer, a political analyst at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herziliya, Israel, says that Netanyahu will be more careful in office than some might expect, and that the differences between Israel's view and Washington's may not be so wide.

"I think there's an emerging separation in both the US and the Israeli views" of how to measure the Palestinian Authority's peacemaking capabilities. "It's a positive view of dealing with the Palestinian technocrats like Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and the security forces trained by Gen. Keith Dayton, and a much more pessimistic view of everything happening at the political level, including Fatah," he says.

Clinton and Netanyahu won't necessarily be on a collision course, Mr. Spyer says, because expectations of solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are so low.

"We can expect moments of tension, even moments of finger-waving, but I don't think there will be a major blowout," he says. "I don't think that the gap between what's possible under Netanyahu, versus a government led by Livni, is all that huge."

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