- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 3, 2009

UPDATED:

JERUSALEM — The Obama administration will soon send two envoys to Damascus to explore opportunities for engagement with Syria’s hard-line government as part of Washington’s outreach to unfriendly regimes, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Tuesday.

During her first visit to Israel since taking office, Mrs. Clinton disagreed publicly with Prime Minister-designate Benyamin Netanyahu’s stated intention to shelve plans for a Palestinian state, saying such a state is “inescapable.”

The senior officials — Jeffrey Feltman, acting assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, and Daniel Shapiro, the top Middle East expert on the National Security Council at the White House — could travel to the Arab country as soon as the next few days, diplomats said.

“We are going to be sending two officials to Syria,” Mrs. Clinton told reporters during the visit to Israel. “There are a number of issues we have between Syria and the United States, as well as the larger regional concerns that Syria obviously poses.”

Although there is “no way to predict” if anything will come out of Washington’s outreach, “it is a worthwhile effort to go and begin these preliminary conversations,” Mrs. Clinton said at a press conference with outgoing Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

“There has to be some perceived benefit of doing so for the United States and our allies and our shared values,” she said.

Syria has allied itself with Iran in recent years and has supported the militant Palestinian group Hamas. Western diplomats have expressed hope that those alliances could be broken if Damascus is approached in the right manner and persuaded that it is in its interest to help the West.

On Monday, the secretary committed the new administration to seeking a “comprehensive peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.”

The Bush administration tended not to use “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.

“The U.S. is prepared to engage in aggressive diplomacy with all sides in pursuit of a comprehensive settlement that brings peace and security to Israel and its Arab neighbors,” Mrs. Clinton said at a donors’ conference for Gaza in Egypt.

She had a brief exchange with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem during the event’s luncheon.

Last week, Mr. Feltman, a former ambassador to Lebanon, met with the Syrian ambassador to Washington, Imad Moustapha. The decision to send the two envoys apparently was made soon after that meeting, but Mrs. Clinton waited to announce it after briefing the Israeli government first.

“In consultation with our friends and allies, our partners, we are reaching out to determine what, if any, areas of cooperation and engagement are possible,” she said on Monday.

The secretary’s announcement came two days after the opening of an international tribunal in The Hague to try suspects in the 2005 murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, in which Syrian officials have been implicated.

In Israel, where a new government has yet to be formed following last month’s elections, Mrs. Clinton met with all major political figures. She explained her open disagreement with Mr. Netanyahu as a genuine difference of opinion that two democratic allies can discuss frankly.

“The United States will be vigorously engaged in the pursuit of a two-state solution every step of the way,” she said. “The inevitability of working toward a two state-solution is inescapable.”

The Bush administration aimed for creating a Palestinian state by the end of last year, and the current Israeli government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert supported that goal. Mrs. Livni was the chief negotiator with the Palestinian Authority.

“We happen to believe that moving toward the two-state solution, step by step, is in Israel’s best interests. But obviously it’s up to the people and the government of Israel to decide how to define your interests,” Mrs. Clinton said.

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