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Clinton comes to Egypt, brings aid for Gaza

Hillary Clinton will arrive in Egypt’s resort town of Sharm el Sheik on Monday, marking her first trip to the region as Secretary of State. She’ll bring with her a pledge of $900 million to be spent on the reconstruction of Gaza.

Her trip carries particular meaning when it comes to assessing the Obama administration’s regional priorities.

The last two U.S. presidents both waited until late in their second terms to take serious stabs at addressing the Israeli-Palestinian issue. This, Clinton’s first trip to the region, is focused on Gaza — one of the region’s thorniest issues.

Even more remarkably, Clinton will follow up her trip here by heading to Jerusalem and Ramallah, seats of two governments in disarray. Israel is currently headed by outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, while Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu attempts to forge a government. In the West Bank, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been hurt significantly ever since Hamas overthrew Palestinian Authority rule in Gaza in June 2007.

With many analysts arguing that no progress is possible with both governments in such disorder, Clinton heads there Monday night nonetheless to give a fresh round of diplomacy a try.

It is also significant that Clinton will make Egypt the first stop on her regional tour. Many regional powers sharply criticized Egypt for keeping its border with Gaza largely closed during Israel’s monthlong war there. TV screens across the region lit up with the images of aid trucks idling at the border, rarely getting permission to cross in.

In many ways, Egypt’s loss of political capital here is a microcosm of a broader trend that has seen Egypt’s regional influence wane with the rise of the Gulf States and the birth of the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah cabal. Once the predominant regional power, Egypt’s standing has slipped—and with it, the U.S.’s ability to enact policy in the region through an influential ally.

But Clinton’s first meeting with an Arab head of state will likely be with Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak. Egypt is among the largest recipients of U.S. aid and is viewed by many as a fairly reliable and moderate ally.

Clinton’s itinerary aside, the nature of the aid she’s bringing is also likely to be a topic of much discussion. Because the U.S. doesn’t talk with Hamas, it’s giving all the aid to the Palestinian Authority, which wields no influence in Gaza. The Authority has some experience in delivering aid to Gaza after the Bush administration cut it a check. But the Authority hasn’t yet had to deal with dispersing a sum as large as $1 billion as it will soon have to.

Supporters of the Clinton plan surely hope that the aid distribution will help bring the Palestinian Authority and Hamas to the table, though disagreements over the money threaten to drive a further wedge between the two sides.

Stay tuned throughout this week and next for coverage of the donor conference.