JERUSALEM — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced Tuesday that she's sending two senior U.S. diplomats to Syria to engage the long-isolated regime as part of the Obama administration's new push for stability in the Middle East.
The decision appeared aimed at cultivating an elusive Israeli-Syrian peace deal and neutralizing Iran's growing influence in the region.
"We don't engage in discussions for the sake of conversation," Clinton said on her first visit to Israel as secretary of state. "There has to be a purpose to them. There has to be some perceived benefit accruing to the United States and our allies."
The talks could lead to a repair of relations with Syria, which hit a new low in 2005 after former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated when his motorcade was bombed in Beirut.
After the killing, which many suspected that top Syrian leaders had directed, the Bush administration recalled the U.S. ambassador from Damascus and refused to receive the Syrian envoy in Washington.
On Sunday, a special United Nations tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, launched a process that could lead to indicting suspects in the Hariri assassination, including four Lebanese generals who are considered sympathetic to Syria's long-standing claims to rule Lebanon.
Western relations with Syria have been on the mend. Syrian President Bashar Assad traveled to Paris last July for an international conference that was viewed as a major step in ending his country's diplomatic isolation.
At the same time, Turkish diplomats have facilitated indirect talks between Syria and Israel to pave the way for direct negotiations between the enemy nations. Israel's recent 22-day military offensive in Gaza interrupted the talks, but Syrian and Israeli leaders have indicated that they still want to pursue them.
The Obama administration's exploratory trip will be led by Jeffrey Feltman, the acting assistant secretary of state for near east affairs, and Daniel Shapiro, a top Middle East expert with the National Security Council.
Clinton made her announcement amid talks with Israeli political leaders that offered few clues as to how the new U.S. administration will proceed with Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy.
Israeli officials said that Clinton didn't focus on the uncertain peace talks that former President George W. Bush launched in November 2007 in Annapolis, Md.
"Annapolis is not yet on the map of the Obama administration," said Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington who's a close adviser to Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu. "Why should the incoming administration hitch its wagon to an initiative which has failed?"
The Obama administration has pledged to push Israeli-Palestinian peace talks aggressively, but it faces a difficult challenge, because Netanyahu and his hawkish Likud Party oppose establishing a Palestinian state.
For that reason, it could be in the interests of Israel and the United States to focus on Syria first. Such an approach could ease the pressure on Netanyahu to secure a deal with Palestinian negotiators and could allow President Barack Obama to make progress on broader Middle East problems.
On Tuesday, Clinton made it clear that the Untied States is still committed to establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
"Time is of the essence," she said.
Palestinian leaders, who'll meet Wednesday with Clinton, already are warning that Netanyahu's opposition to a Palestinian state could be a deal-breaker.
"I'm really surprised that the United States and other countries keep talking about a peace process," said Mustafa Barghouti, an independent Palestinian lawmaker. "With these people there is no peace process."
Barghouti said "the time has come for America to take a stand" against expanding Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which is widely viewed as a major obstacle to establishing a Palestinian state.
Clinton, however, didn't press Netanyahu on either a Palestinian state or Jewish settlements, Shoval said.
Her visit coincided with Netanyahu's effort to cement a new ruling coalition. His initial attempts to create a broad unity government faltered when Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said that she and her centrist Kadima Party couldn't be part of any government that refused to embrace the idea of an independent Palestinian state.
Livni's refusal could ensure that conservatives who oppose major concessions in talks with their Palestinian counterparts dominate Israel's next government.
Rather than dwelling on the Palestinian talks, Clinton and Netanyahu spent more time talking about Iran and its regional influence, Shoval said.
Many Israeli leaders are wary of the Obama administration's hopes to open direct talks with Iran aimed at curbing its nuclear program. Netanyahu told Clinton that there should be a firm time limit on talks with Iran and that tougher sanctions should accompany them, to ensure that Iran doesn't develop a nuclear weapon, Shoval said.
(Special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this report from Jerusalem.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2009