Clinton wraps up Mideast sweep

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.

 

Referring to the Jerusalem Municipality’s plan to demolish 88 Palestinian homes built without permits on the slopes beneath the walls of the Old City, Clinton said that “this will be taken up with the Israeli government.”

“Clearly this kind of activity is unhelpful and not in keeping with obligations entered into under the Road Map” peace plan, she said. Both the Israelis and Palestinians signed on to the Road Map five years ago.

Clinton praised President Abbas as “a leader of courage and dedication,” but she didn’t appear convinced by his attempts to draw Hamas into a so-called unity government. “The U.S. supports the Palestinian Authority as the only legitimate government of the Palestinian people and as a partner on the road to a two-state solution,” she said.

That makes Abbas’s situation delicate. His aides have been in talks in Cairo to end the rift with Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. Palestinian officials in Ramallah say they hope Hamas will agree to some formulation of a new Palestinian government which would reduce or at least mask the Islamist party’s role. That’s because international donors at the Sharm el-Sheikh conference on Monday said they wouldn’t allow their $4.5 billion in aid to pass into Gaza so long as Hamas controlled the place.

Clinton is clearly trying to use that enormous financial incentive to force Hamas to let Abbas’s Palestinian Authority back into a controlling position in the Gaza Strip. Hamas violently expelled Abbas’s people from Gaza almost two years ago.

Clinton added that, during her meetings with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Tuesday, she pushed them to loosen controls over the border crossing into the Gaza Strip, so that supplies can be transported to the people suffering there since the fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas in January. “We’re obviously concerned about the border crossings,” she said.

Earlier this week, a visiting British government minister criticized Israel’s logic regarding supplies allowed into Gaza. For example, rice is permitted to pass through the Israeli crossings, because it’s a staple that qualifies as “aid,” while pasta is blocked because it’s a luxury.

More Dispatches on Secretary of State Clinton's tour of the Middle East:

What Clinton brings to Egypt

Clinton confronts reality in the Middle East

Redefining the "peace process"