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Clinton dips into Middle East peacemaking

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton makes her first foray into Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking next week, promising more than $900 million in aid for Gaza but with dim prospects of reviving talks soon.
/ Source: Reuters

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton makes her first foray into Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking next week, promising more than $900 million in aid for Gaza but with dim prospects of reviving talks soon.

Middle East experts say the timing could not be worse, with a new Israeli government being cobbled together after last week's election and Egyptian efforts making no headway yet in forging a Palestinian unity government.

Clinton will be in Egypt on Monday for a donors conference to rebuild Gaza after Israel's December invasion. She will go on to Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank for talks early next week with Israeli and Palestinian officials.

"The visit is intended to try to make some movement in terms of getting both the Israelis and the Palestinians back into some kind of a peace process but it is complicated," said a senior State Department official.

Former President Bill Clinton worked until his last day in office to try to clinch an elusive deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Hillary Clinton, his wife, has made clear she will do the same.

"This administration feels we have to stay engaged and regularly. It's to keep people focused on the prize," said the senior official of Clinton's trip, which follows one by her special Mideast envoy George Mitchell.

'In listening mode'
Clinton is set to meet Israel's hawkish Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu, who is trying to form a new coalition, as well as Israel's foreign minister and chief negotiator with the Palestinians, Tzipi Livni of the centrist Kadima Party. Clinton will also see defense minister Ehud Barak of the Labor Party.

"Given the situation in local politics on the ground, she has to be in a listening mode," said Daniel Levy, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington.

Netanyahu has said he would pursue peace with the Palestinians but shift the focus of U.S.-brokered negotiations from statehood issues, which have proved difficult to resolve, to more immediate economic and security concerns.

"The whole point is to try and talk to all of them and to keep them focused once there is a new government," said the senior U.S. official.

Levy said Clinton would have to guard against being seen as meddling in internal Israeli politics.

"Anything she says can be construed as taking a stand on the coalition negotiations," he said. "She will likely keep her comments to a minimum, which begs the question of why go there?"

Money with strings
Washington is expected to pledge more than $900 million to the Gaza relief effort at Monday's conference in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, according to U.S. officials.

Much of that money still has to be appropriated by the U.S. Congress, whose focus is more on the recession-hit domestic economy. Fears are also high that a big infusion of funds will end up rewarding Hamas, the militant group that rules Gaza.

Preliminary estimates put the damage in Gaza after Israel's recent military strikes at nearly $2 billion. About 1,300 Palestinians died in the land and air attacks aimed at stopping Hamas from firing rockets into the Jewish state.

Clinton will stress to other donors that no U.S. money can be funneled through Hamas and that the goal must be to bolster President Mahmoud Abbas who runs the West Bank, and have him take the credit for Gaza rebuilding efforts.

"We want to show we care about their plight and that we obviously don't want civilians to suffer any more than they have. But we want to make it clear again that any contributions we make will not go to Hamas," said the senior U.S. official.

Regardless of who the money is channeled through, analysts say until there is a proper truce in Gaza and Israel opens up border crossings, the aid pledges will have little impact.

There also needs to be a good working relationship between Hamas and Abbas's Fatah movement.

"It is very hard to know how you can implement and distribute the aid unless you have some kind of practical arrangements between Hamas and Fatah," said Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland.

Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said it would be difficult to ensure Gaza does not become a strategic victory for Hamas.

"Trying to get $900 million of stuff into Gaza without rewarding Hamas will be a pretty tough trick," he said.