Hillary Clinton's Risky Return to Mideast Peace Talks

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Alex Wong / Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looks on at the opening of the relaunch of direct negotiations for peace, taking place at the State Department in Washington on Sept. 2, 2010

Hillary Clinton has been notably distant from the Middle East peace process over the past 10 months. Since her ill-fated visit to the region in late October 2009, when she overstated the significance of an Israeli concession and spent the rest of the trip trying to dial it back, Clinton has not traveled to Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan or Egypt. Her most notable intervention came last March, when she called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to scold him for a perceived slight to Vice President Joe Biden.

So it was attention-getting to see her take center stage in this week's meetings relaunching peace talks between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. And it was even more telling when the State Department announced that she would be attending the next round of meetings in the region. After 18 months of special envoy George Mitchell's hammering away at the two sides to try to get them into direct talks, the takeaway from this week in Washington was clear: when it comes to U.S. involvement in the peace process, Hillary Clinton now has the point.

The State Department says "she's the logical one to step up" to take control of the U.S. role now that the Israeli and Palestinian leaders are at last engaging. "At its heart, this is now every bit as much a political challenge as it is a policy challenge," says State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. "She does bring clout to the process, but she also has the ability to talk to these leaders as a significant political figure in her own right and also as a political figure who can appreciate their dilemmas and can help them work through the tough politics on both sides."

Netanyahu and Abbas have agreed to meet every two weeks in search of progress, and when an American is to attend those talks, senior State officials say, Clinton is expected to regularly be the participant. Clinton is also stepping up her public appearances, including her first interview with an Israeli TV station. "With the move back to direct negotiations, this is the point at which it is appropriate for the Secretary of State to take it on," says a senior State official.

Behind the scenes, Clinton has been preparing for her new role. She ordered a review of all previous U.S. efforts in the peace process, including analyses of what worked and what didn't. And in the run-up to the start of direct talks in Washington, Clinton began shouldering some of the negotiating duties, making calls to the leaders of Egypt and Jordan as well as Abbas, Netanyahu and other top Israeli and Palestinian officials. "She did a lot of the spade work," says the senior State official.

There are risks for Clinton. The advantage previous Administrations had in waiting until the end of their times in office to push for peace in the Middle East was that when they failed, the fallout was left to their successors: both George W. Bush's and Bill Clinton's failed last-minute efforts were followed by surges in violence on the ground. If this latest effort fails, Clinton will likely still be Secretary of State for the fallout.

Even veterans of the Bush Administration give her credit for being willing to take that risk. "Hillary Clinton seems to be willing to take an active role," says Stephen Hadley, Bush's last National Security Adviser. "That's good, because it means that she thinks it's possible, and because she's as skilled as she is, it makes it more likely there will be success. Mitchell, as good as he is, cannot do it alone. He needs the help of the political hitters."