- The Washington Times - Monday, March 2, 2009

UPDATED:

SHARM EL SHEIK, Egypt — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton plunged into Middle East politics Monday, committing the Obama administration to seeking a “comprehensive peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.”

Mrs. Clinton joined officials from about 70 countries and international organizations at a donors’ conference for Gaza in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik, where she pledged more than $900 million in U.S. aid.

“I’m proud to be here on behalf of the Obama administration and to bring this message from our new president: The United States is committed to a comprehensive peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and we will pursue it on many fronts,” she told the delegates.

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“So, too, will we vigorously pursue a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” she said.

“We cannot afford more setbacks or delays, or regrets about what might have been, had different decisions been made,” she said, apparently referring to the failure of previous peace efforts.

The Bush administration tended not to use the word “comprehensive,” a code word for peace between Israel and all its remaining Arab adversaries: the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon. Instead it stressed the Palestinian track and specific issues short of Palestinian statehood, such as security, Palestinian freedom of movement and Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Mrs. Clinton has been meeting with Arab and European officials, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. At lunch, she was said to have chatted with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, though apparently nothing of substance was discussed.

During a meeting with United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan, Mrs. Clinton expressed doubt that Iran will respond to a U.S. offer of engagement under the current government in Tehran, said a State Department official traveling with her. Iran holds presidential elections in June, and U.S. officials are wary of being seen as interfering in Iranian domestic politics.

U.S. special envoy George Mitchell is accompanying the secretary, who officials said sees her first trip to the region as an opportunity to listen and understand the views of the various players. She promised to consult with them on all major decisions.

At the conference, she pledged about $900 million in U.S. aid, about a third of which will be used for the humanitarian needs in Gaza. The rest will go to the U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority to help with its budget shortfall and various projects.

The militant group Hamas was not invited to the conference, and a spokesman said Monday that its exclusion will undermine international efforts to rebuild Gaza.

Mrs. Clinton is resisting intensive lobbying from European officials to recognize a Palestinian unity government that includes the militant group Hamas, U.S. and European diplomats said.

“The secretary made it very clear that it’s important we don’t send mixed signals to Hamas,” State Department spokesman Robert A. Wood told reporters traveling with Mrs. Clinton.

The Europeans still support the three conditions endorsed by international peace mediators known as “the Quartet” — that Hamas recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept previous Palestinian agreements with the Jewish state — before the West deals directly with it. The Quartet comprises the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.

However, the Europeans said that having one government representing all Palestinians is essential for addressing Gazans’ humanitarian needs and reconstruction. It also is important for the peace process, they added, so that any agreement with Israel be accepted by all Palestinian factions.


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