Photos taken on March 4, 2009 are put together, showing U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a joint news conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah.(Xinhua/Hua Chunyu) Photo Gallery>>>
by David Harris
JERUSALEM, March 4 (Xinhua) -- Aside from the photo-ops and handshakes of the last two days, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has achieved what she wanted to in round one of her Middle East peace mission -- she listened to Israeli and Palestinian leaders, made clear the intentions of the Obama administration and also opened the door to a broader peace between Israel and its neighbors.
Clinton spent Tuesday with Israeli leaders -- perhaps most significantly with the presumptive prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. She made the short journey on Wednesday north from Jerusalem to Ramallah for talks with the Palestinian leadership.
Palestinian National Authority (PNA) Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (R) shakes hands with visiting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on March 4, 2009. (Xinhua/Reuters Photo) Photo Gallery>>>
"It was a visit testing the water and seeing how we can progress," said Nazir Mgally, an Israeli-Arab commentator, who writes for the London-based Arabic daily A-Sharq Al-Awsat, among others. "It was mainly about listening, in particular to find out whether Israeli leaders wish to move in this direction (of two states for two peoples)."
That is why the meeting with Netanyahu was key. Clinton's sessions with President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak were little more than pleasantries.
By the end of this month Netanyahu is expected to be calling the shots in what will seemingly be a hawkish coalition. Most of the "natural partners" to whom he refers would prefer not see a two state solution, but rather no territorial compromise.
The Ramallah element of the trip was less significant, because the views in the Palestinian National Authority are already known. From President Mahmoud Abbas down, the PNA wants to see territorial compromise on the part of the Israelis, the removing of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the location of any future Palestinian state, an end to the blockade on Gaza and the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails.
While Clinton made it clear to her Israeli hosts that they have much to do before a durable peace can be achieved, she also told the Palestinians they must end the violence against Israelis.
"The first step right now, not waiting for a new (Israeli) government, is a durable cease fire, but that can only be achieved if Hamas ceases the rocket attacks," Clinton told reporters in Jerusalem after meeting her counterpart Livni.
"No nation should be expected to sit idly by and allow rockets to assault its people and its territories. These attacks must stop and so must the smuggling of weapons into Gaza."
Around the same time as Clinton was making her remarks, Israeli military aircraft launched an attack against what the Israel Defense Forces described as "six smuggling tunnels."
Israel said the strike was in response to a "heavy barrage" of mortar and rocket fire over the last few days. Seven Palestinians were wounded in the strike, according to local sources.
When she met Netanyahu later on Tuesday the pair did not only focus on the Palestinian issue, but also on Iran, Netanyahu told journalists following their discussion.
While Clinton's focus was on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she also announced two envoys, representing the White House and the Department of State, would be dispatched to the Syrian capital Damascus. Their aim will be two-fold: to improve bilateral ties between Washington and Damascus, and to try to reboot the Israeli-Syrian peace track.
The Bill Clinton administration did facilitate Syrian-Israeli talks and Netanyahu has indicated in the past he would not rule out such a dialogue.
However, Hillary Clinton made it clear during her two-day visit that her top priority is the Israeli-Palestinian track.
"She really came to check out what's happening on the ground and from that perspective she succeeded," said Efraim Inbar, who heads the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.
Inbar is convinced Clinton knows the first thing that needs to be done to reboot the peace process is to deal with Hamas.
"How can there be progress while Hamas controls Gaza?" he asked. "How can you talk about two states for two peoples when Hamas controls Gaza?"
On her return to Washington, Clinton will have to consider the American approach to the conflict. Both she and President Barack Obama have made clear they want to see swift progress. However, it is unclear at this stage how they will tackle the specifics.
There have been some talks in Ramallah and Jerusalem over the last couple of days of the U.S. adopting the Arab peace initiative as a basis for negotiations.
Approved in 2002, the initiative talks about an Israeli withdrawal from all territories occupied since the 1967 Six-Day War in exchange for a full peace with all Arab states.
However, Mgally thinks it is too early for Obama and Clinton to go with the Arab plan.
"The time isn't ripe for going down this path in any depth, as long as the Palestinians are internally divided and do not have a unified leadership," he said.
TEHRAN, March 4 (Xinhua) -- A senior Iranian official on Wednesday rejected Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' accusation that Iran was intervening in the Palestinian internal affairs by holding an international conference on the issue.
"Holding conference on Palestine in Tehran does not mean interfering in Palestinian affairs," Ali Akbar Velayati, foreign policy adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was quoted by local Mehr news agency as saying. Full story
JERUSALEM, March 3 (Xinhua) -- Visiting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Tuesday asked Israeli officials that the U.S. administration is committed to establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
The United States "will be vigorously engaged in the pursuit of a two-state solution... The inevitability of working toward a two-state solution is inescapable," said Clinton at a joint press conference with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Full story
JERUSALEM, March 3 (Xinhua) -- Israeli Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday that he found "common ground" with visiting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in achieving the "common goals" of both countries.
While details of their meeting were still unknown, the chairman of the center-right Likud party and leader of the right-wing bloc said his conversation with Clinton "was deep, important and good." Full story