- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 3, 2009

SHARM EL SHEIK, Egypt

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday committed herself personally to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, saying that finding a solution is “in my heart, not just my portfolio.”

Mrs. Clinton cited the persistent peacemaking efforts of her husband, former President Bill Clinton, and linked a solution to the future of Israeli and Palestinian children.

“I personally am very committed to this, and I know it can be done. I believe that with all my heart,” she told reporters at a donors’ conference for Gaza at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik. “To me, this is about what happens to the children in Gaza and the West Bank. I got into politics, because I care deeply what happens to children.”

In a long series of meetings with Arab and European officials, Mrs. Clinton heard how much hope they attach to the new administration’s commitment to resolving the decades-long conflict. At the same time, she heard skepticism about the peace process in light of the results of the recent Israeli election and the deep divisions among the Palestinian leadership.

“You’ll see the amount of effort the United States puts into this,” she said.

Mrs Clinton, who was accompanied by special envoy George Mitchell on her first trip to the region as secretary of state, promised to consult with friendly Arab governments on all major decisions, including the peace process and dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“Some of you know that George Mitchell’s father was Irish and his mother was Lebanese. Well, he solved half of his family’s problems, so now he is here working on the second half, and we hope that we will see it come to fruition,” she said in a humorous reference to Mr. Mitchell’s role in negotiating the 1998 Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland.

When asked if she thought there could be a Palestinian state by year’s end, Mrs. Clinton said she is “a very hopeful person,” but then gave a typically diplomatic answer.

“It would be our hope that there would certainly be progress that was tangible, that positively affected the lives of the Palestinian people, which led to the possibility, the probability of a viable state,” she said just minutes before flying to Israel.

Mrs. Clinton joined officials from about 70 countries and international organizations and pledged more than $900 million in U.S. aid for Gaza.

Mrs. Clinton is scheduled to meet with the current Israeli government Tuesday, as well as with Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who is expected to form a new Cabinet soon.

Among the issues likely to be discussed is Israel’s continued expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

The peace group Peace Now revealed Monday that the Israeli housing ministry has been given initial authorization to build 15,000 new housing units in the West Bank.

Israel’s left-wing parties are hoping that Mrs. Clinton will give priority to the issue.

“Sometimes you need your friends to prevent yourself from doing things that will hurt yourself,” said Yariv Oppenheimer, the director of Peace Now and an unsuccessful candidate for parliament on the Labor party ticket.

Israel’s official position is that it will establish no new settlements, but it will allow expansion to account for what it calls “natural growth.”

Opponents of settlements say that undermines the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state.

Outside specialists say U.S. pressure is key to halting settlement growth.

“It has become clear that no Israeli government on its own can address the settlement question,” said Scott Lasensky, who co-authored a review of 20 years of U.S. mediation in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

• Joshua Mitnick contributed to this report from Tel Aviv.

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