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Clinton makes first foray into Mideast peacemaking

Posted by claudiacampli su 1 marzo, 2009

IHT

By MARK LANDLER Reuters

Published: March 1, 2009

WASHINGTON: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton landed in this Red Sea resort Sunday for what promises to be a tricky first foray into Middle East diplomacy, with deep mutual distrust between Israelis and Palestinians and a still-fluid political situation in Israel.

The ostensible reason for Clinton’s trip is a donors’ conference convened by the Egyptian government. The United States is expected to pledge up to $900 million for humanitarian relief for Gaza, much of which lies in ruins after Israel’s three-week assault on the Hamas militant group.

Yet Clinton’s visit, which includes stops in Jerusalem and the West Bank, is also meant to show that the Obama administration is determined to pursue robust peace-making, after years of neglect and belated engagement by the Bush administration. Some experts see Clinton and her special envoy for the Middle East, George Mitchell, taking a new approach.

“The big question is, ‘What is U.S. policy toward Hamas?” said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who advised Clinton on Arab-Israeli issues during her presidential campaign.

Publicly, not a lot has changed. Clinton on Friday restated Washington’s demand that Hamas renounce terrorism and recognize Israel as a condition for dealing with the United States.

But the Obama administration is not discouraging talks between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas to form a so-called unity government. A senior American official said that if such a government were formed, the United States would not rule out dealing with it, in some fashion.

Such openness, Indyk said, amounted to a significant shift in policy from the Bush administration, which focused on shoring up the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and isolating Hamas in Gaza.

Clinton faces numerous landmines – ranging from the question of how goods can be funneled into Hamas-controlled Gaza, to the shifting political landscape in Israel, where Benjamin Netanyahu may end up having to put together a narrow, right-wing government.

“Fortuitously, she’s got a conference to go to,” said Aaron David Miller, a Middle East negotiator in the administration of President Bill Clinton who now works for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “But a trip like this could easily highlight how gloomy the situation is.”

The Palestinian Authority and Hamas both claim that they should take the lead in rebuilding Gaza. The United States will not deal with Hamas, saying it is a terrorist organization bent on the destruction of Israel. And the Israeli government has kept border crossings to Gaza closed – prompting a chorus of international criticism that it is blocking humanitarian aid.

“It’s very hard, even if you give $900 million, to deal with the implementation of this,” Miller said. “If the crossings aren’t open on a consistent basis, how are we going to funnel in this aid money?”

Efforts by the Palestinians to form a unity government have begun again, with the Fatah Party of Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, meeting with Hamas last week in Cairo.

“We are moving in steady steps toward Palestinian reconciliation to form a Palestinian government,” Abbas said Saturday after briefing the European Union’s top diplomat, Javier Solana. Abbas reiterated that such a government would have to recognize Israel.

For that reason, many analysts are pessimistic that the Palestinians will succeed in bridging their differences. That complicates the issue of getting relief into Gaza, since the Israelis have closed the border to cement and other building materials, saying that would strengthen Hamas.

The United States has pressed Israel to relax its border controls, with little success.

Netanyahu, analysts say, is unlikely to relax the hard-line policy when he forms a government, since it is popular with the Israeli public, which still faces scattered rocket attacks from militants in Gaza.

In addition to attending the donors’ conference, Clinton plans a round of meetings Monday with Arab and European leaders. Then she leaves for Jerusalem, where the fitful coalition talks between Netanyahu and the foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, suggest that Netanyahu may be forced to cobble together a right-wing government.

“It’s hard to see how a narrow right-wing coalition can deal with a Palestinian government,” Indyk said.

Netanyahu has a checkered history with the Clintons. In 1995, when he last formed a government, he was bitter that the Clinton administration favored his opponent, Shimon Peres. This time, analysts predict, Netanyahu would reach out to Clinton with open arms.

With so many impediments to an Israeli-Palestinian deal, analysts say the more promising avenue now may be an opening to Syria. The State Department invited Syria’s ambassador to the United States for a two-hour meeting on Thursday, which may serve as a first step toward engagement.

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