Clinton Schmoozes in Israel — at the Right Length

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Ronen Zvulun/AP

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton listens to Israel's Prime Minister–designate, Benjamin Netanyahu, before a meeting in Jerusalem on March 3

The game among Israeli aides yesterday was checking their wristwatches to see how much time U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave to Tzipi Livni and Benjamin Netanyahu — the political rivals who are both staking a claim to become the country's next Prime Minister. In her first swing through the Middle East since taking over as Secretary of State, Clinton was careful not to show favoritism toward either Israeli contender. Each got 60 minutes.

Clinton was never going to avoid running into domestic Israeli politics on her visit. Livni's centrist Kadima Party posted a narrow win in Feb. 10 parliamentary elections but has been unable to stitch together a governing coalition. Now the hawkish Netanyahu is trying his luck, turning to the right wing and orthodox religious parties and possibly a breakaway faction of the Labor Party. (See pictures of 60 years of Israel.)

Clinton schmoozed with all the top Israeli leaders and looked schoolgirl-bashful when octogenarian President Shimon Peres gave her a bouquet and a buss on the cheek. There were beaming smiles all around, but little of substance was discussed other than Clinton's assurance to Israel that the U.S. opposes a nuclear-armed Iran.

Arriving in Israel during this time of political flux, Clinton could not hope to accomplish anything beyond reminding Israelis that the new Obama Administration intends to pursue the two-state peace plan between Israelis and the Palestinians. During her 36-hour stay in Israel, Clinton said that a two-state solution was "in Israel's best interests" and that it was "inescapable" and "inevitable."

Not much new there. The Bush Administration had pushed in the same direction, albeit with a lot less vigor. But Clinton's timing was crucial. Netanyahu, who is likely to be Israel's next Premier, opposes the idea of giving the Palestinians their own state, so Clinton's remarks are a warning that Washington expects right winger Netanyahu to abide by peace accords signed by previous Israeli governments. (Netanyahu says he believes in an "economic peace" with the Palestinians, but Clinton made it clear in talks with Israeli officials that a political solution must come first.)

During Bush's second term, Clinton's predecessor at the State Department, Condoleezza Rice, clocked more than 20 visits to Israel, slogging between Jerusalem and Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority, with little to show for her efforts. That same fate may await Clinton. Her only hope is to convince Israelis that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is moderate but weak, can never sell peace to his people unless Israel, as a first step, removes some Jewish settlements and army checkpoints from inside the Palestinian territories. (See pictures of Ramallah under siege.)

On Tuesday, Clinton met with Abbas to reaffirm Washington's support for the creation of a Palestinian state. But Clinton's aides had briefed her on Abbas' woes: nearly half his domain — Gaza — remains in the grip of Islamists Hamas, and even in his West Bank stronghold, his popularity has taken a dive for his failure to gain any concessions on the issue of Israeli settlements.

Clinton did make two remarkable departures from the Bush Administration's Middle East policy. She urged Israel to open the border crossings to Gaza, the Palestinian coastal enclave, to allow in more humanitarian relief for the 1.5 million people there who are reeling under the impact of a 22-day Israeli assault that ended in January. Until its last days, the Bush Administration not only had backed Israel's offensive against Hamas militants in Gaza but had also supported a punishing, 19-month economic blockade of the territory. At an international donor conference in Egypt on Monday, Clinton pledged $300 million for humanitarian aid to Gaza.

Clinton also said she would send envoys to Damascus for direct talks with Syrian leaders, the first since the Bush Administration broke off ties after the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri, whose killing is suspected to have been linked to the Syrian intelligence services. "We don't engage in discussions for the sake of having conversations," Clinton said. "There has to be a purpose to them. There has to be some benefit accruing to the United States and our allies." Indirect talks between Israel and Syria, brokered by the Turks, ended with Israel's Gaza offensive.

This trip was a breeze compared with what awaits Clinton next time. If Netanyahu forms a government, which is likely, he and Clinton are likely to clash over reviving the peace process. Netanyahu will have a powerful argument on his side: if he tears up campaign vows and backs the creation of a Palestinian state, as the Obama Administration wants, his right-wing-coalition partners would walk, plunging Israel into a state of political uncertainty.

With reporting by Aaron J. Klein / Tel Aviv

See pictures of 60 years of Israel.

See pictures of life under Hamas in Gaza.