Clinton makes first foray into Middle East peacemaking

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 27, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in the Middle East on Monday to begin making good on her and President Barack Obama's commitment to make negotiating an end to the Arab-Israeli dispute a diplomatic priority.

Rather than bold visions and sweeping peace plans, however, Clinton will enter the Middle East arena with relatively modest steps to buttress a shaky cease-fire in place since the recent Gaza war, according to senior U.S. officials and Middle Eastern diplomats.

She doesn't have much choice.

The militant Islamic group Hamas, which opposes negotiations with Israel, controls Gaza, and the secular Palestinian Authority, which is more amenable to compromise and controls the West Bank, is dogged by allegations of corruption and incompetence.

The important talks may be ones that Clinton isn't participating in directly — negotiations between Hamas and the rival Palestinian Authority over a Palestinian unity government.

Clinton on Friday welcomed progress in the talks between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, but reiterated that Hamas must recognize Israel's right to exist, renounce violence and commit to peace talks.

"Otherwise, I don't think (a unity government) will result in the kind of positive step forward either for the Palestinian people or as a vehicle for a reinvigorated effort to obtain peace," she said in a Voice of America interview.

In Israel, meanwhile, hawkish Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to form a government following elections in which Israeli voters, soured on the prospects for peace, veered sharply to the right.

Hopes for a pragmatic Israeli unity government were dashed Friday when Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni of the centrist Kadima party rebuffed Netanyahu's appeals to join him in a coalition.

Livni said she couldn't join with Likud because of the right-wing party's opposition to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

Livni's decision makes it more likely that Netanyahu will establish a center-right government with Israel's ultra-Orthodox and far-right political parties. It probably will boost the power and influence of ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman, the head of Israel's third-largest parliamentary bloc and a polarizing figure inside Israel and around the world.

Likud traditionally has been a supporter of expanding Jewish settlement on the West Bank, which Palestinians see as making a mockery of peace talks. Obama and Clinton have given no hint yet as to how they'll handle the politically explosive settlements issue.

Clinton's first stop will be in Sharm el-Sheik, on the southern tip of Egypt's Sinai peninsula, where she'll attend a donors' conference that will marshal humanitarian aid for war-torn Gaza. Clinton is expected to announce a U.S. pledge of about $900 million.

Aid from foreign treasuries alone, however, is unlikely to have much lasting impact. Israel, which controls most of what goes in and out of Gaza, has made it clear that it won't allow major building supplies into the isolated Mediterranean strip so long as it's controlled by Hamas.

"We know reconstruction will not be successful and rational or feasible if there are no open borders," said Palestinian Authority Planning Minister Samir Abdullah, who'll be taking part in Monday's donor's conference.

"If the situation continues like it has during the last 20 months, there will be no construction and the misery will increase and violence will increase and you will see more and more confrontation," Abdullah warned.

A senior State Department official, briefing reporters Friday, said that Clinton — who'll also visit Jerusalem and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah — will press the importance of a comprehensive peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

"We want to address needs in Gaza, but also to move forward on the comprehensive peace," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity under ground rules imposed by the State Department.

With the prospects for productive peace talks uncertain, at best, however, Clinton and Obama's special envoy, George Mitchell, are likely to find themselves, like their predecessors, dealing with frustrating details such as how to get humanitarian and rebuilding aid into Gaza without inadvertently helping Hamas.

U.S., Israeli and Arab officials are working on a plan drawn up by Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad that would see aid channeled to international organizations and directly to individuals and business owners in Gaza, bypassing Hamas.

"Nobody wants the assistance to be channeled through Hamas," said an Israeli official, requesting anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly.

(Nissenbaum reported from Jerusalem.)

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