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Clinton wraps up Mideast sweep

Along with a diplomatic breakthrough on Syria, she offered "constructive ideas" on peace and cash for the Palestinian Authority.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shakes hands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during their meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah March 4, 2009. Clinton criticised on Wednesday Israel's plans to demolish dozens of Palestinian homes in Arab East Jerusalem as a violation of its international obligations. (Bernat Armangue/Reuters)

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Hillary Clinton has completed her first Mideast visit as Secretary of State with a promise to keep the U.S. engaged in the quiet diplomacy she hopes will lead to a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel, the Palestinians, and Arab neighbors like Syria. 

Clinton pointedly avoided sweeping declarations about when peace might be achieved. She toed a careful line in encouraging Israel to lift its tight controls on goods entering the stricken Gaza Strip, and was guarded in her condemnation of Israeli plans to demolish Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem or to continue settlement building.

That will have disappointed many observers who expected major changes in U.S. Mideast policy from the Obama administration. “We’re trying to express constructive ideas,” she said at a press conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, when pushed by reporters to explain why she hadn’t been harsher on the Israeli officials she met in Jerusalem on Tuesday.

Clinton’s aides point out that her visit was exploratory and that she was impressed enough with Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad’s presentation to donor nations in Egypt on Monday to promise $900 million to the Palestinian Authority.

She also revealed during her trip that she would send State Department and National Security Council envoys to Syria, aiming to reduce the isolation imposed on Damascus during the latter years of the Bush administration. That’s intended to set the groundwork for an eventual peace deal between Israel and Syria, which U.S. officials believe may be easier for a potentially right-wing new Israeli government to swallow than concessions to the Palestinians.

It would have been wrong to expect stunning developments from Clinton’s two-day dip into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After all, it’s a delicate situation, even by the standards of international diplomacy. The Palestinians have two governments — the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, and Hamas in Gaza — but Clinton will talk to only one of them.

Meanwhile the Israelis are three weeks into post-election coalition negotiations and, therefore, don’t really have a government for Clinton to wag her finger at, even if she wanted to do so.

Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu is negotiating with potential coalition partners to form a government. At her press conference, Clinton promised that “as soon as the government is formed,” her Middle East envoy, the former Senator George Mitchell, would return to press Israel on the issues of settlement expansion and housing demolitions.