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Clinton's delicate Mid-East tour

By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Washington

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton will have to walk a fine line during her visit

Hillary Clinton arrived in Egypt on Sunday evening for her first foray, as US secretary of state, into the complex politics of the Middle East.

While the main reason for her trip is to attend an aid conference for the reconstruction of Gaza in Sharm el- Sheikh, she will also meet Arab leaders on the sidelines of that meeting.

Mrs Clinton will then travel to Israel and the Palestinian territories to meet leaders from both sides and also students, during an event similar to the kind she held throughout her maiden trip to Asia.

America's top diplomat is no stranger to the region and she will find some of the same actors on stage.

As first lady during Bill Clinton's presidency, she came out early in support of a Palestinian state and, in some way, she will be picking up where her husband left off in 2000 when he failed to nail down a peace deal.

In 1999 an ill-timed embrace with Soha, wife of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, backfired at home as she campaigned to become a New York senator.

Once elected as a representative of a state with a large Jewish vote she took a more hawkish position, and often drew praise from the pro-Israeli lobby group AIPAC for her stands on Israel and the conflict.

Old acquaintance

Today, Israelis, Arabs and Middle East-watchers will decipher Mrs Clinton's every word to determine whether she is the woman who embraced Soha Arafat or the pro-Jewish NY senator.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Bill Clinton in 1998
Mr Netanyahu reportedly lectured Mr Clinton about the Arab-Israeli conflict

Mrs Clinton will have to walk a fine line, but some observers argue that - more than 15 years later - it is easier to bridge the two positions, now that the call for a Palestinian state is commonplace.

The situation on the ground is no less complex.

And the man whose ire she drew in 1995, by saying that the Palestinians should get a "functioning modern state that is on the same footing as other states" in the interest of peace in the region, is back in the saddle.

As Israeli prime minister back then, Benjamin Netanyahu replied tersely that "our position on this is well known", even as White House press officials scrambled to insist that Mrs Clinton was not reflecting administration policy.

As prime minister-designate today, Mr Netanyahu is willing to engage the Palestinians, according to his Likud ally Silvan Shalom, but will not agree in advance to the two-state solution advocated by international powers since the Oslo accords of 1993.

Mrs Clinton probably remembers that when her husband and "Bibi" Netanyahu were both in power, relations between the US and Israel suffered a rift.

During their first meeting in 1996, Bibi lectured Bill about the Arab-Israeli conflict, drawing an angry reaction from the American president, according to a book, Much Too Promised Land, by a former special envoy to the Middle East, Aaron Miller.

Mr Clinton is quoted as saying: "Who the [expletive deleted] does he think he is? Who's the [expletive deleted] superpower here?"

'In listening mode'

The new US administration, full of former Clintonites, may be apprehensive about dealing with Mr Netanyahu again.

She [Hillary Clinton] will likely keep her comments to a minimum which begs the question of why go there?
Daniel Levy
Former Israeli negotiator

But Mrs Clinton will steer clear of Israeli domestic politics during her scheduled meetings with all the country's current leaders, among them Ehud Olmert, who is still the prime minister, and Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister who won the elections by one seat over Mr Netanyahu but failed to put together a coalition.

"This is a sensitive time in Israeli politics as they seek to form a government, but I will take the opportunity to reaffirm the strength of the US-Israel relationship and talk about the best way to move peace forward," Mrs Clinton said before leaving Washington.

Daniel Levy, a former Israeli negotiator and a fellow at the New American foundation in Washington, said Mrs Clinton would probably be in "listening mode" while in Israel.

"Anything she says can be construed as taking a stand on the coalition negotiations. She will likely keep her comments to a minimum, which begs the question of why go there?"

Gaza pledge

The timing of Mrs Clinton's visit to the region is mostly driven by the donors' conference for Palestinians, in the aftermath of the Israeli military operation in Gaza in December and January.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas hopes to raise almost $3bn (2.1bn) for reconstruction efforts. The US is expected to pledge 900m (633m) in new money towards that effort.

The rubble of a house in Jabaliya, Gaza (22/02/2009)
Around 21,000 homes were destroyed or damaged during the Gaza conflict.

"I will be announcing a commitment to a significant aid package," said Mrs Clinton. "But it will only be spent if we determine that our goals can be furthered rather than undermined or subverted."

The US and the EU, which both list Hamas as a terrorist organisation, have made clear they will not allow money to be channelled through the militant group which controls Gaza.

"We want to show we care about their plight [the Palestinians] and that we obviously don't want civilians to suffer any more than they have.

"But we want to make clear that any contributions we make will not go to Hamas," said a senior US official.

Delivering money and aid and promoting reconstruction in Gaza without any help from Hamas and without reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, Mr Abbas' moderate faction, will prove tricky.

Mr Levy also points out that no amount of money will make a difference if Israel continues to maintain the closure on Gaza's borders and as long as the unilateral ceasefire remains shaky.

Humanitarian organisations, such as Oxfam and Care, have complained that the amount of aid currently reaching Gaza is well below the needs.

Israel is worried about "dual-use" items entering Gaza, but Michael Bailey, from Oxfam International, said the restrictions were too wide.

"We are talking about very simple things," he told Reuters news agency.

"Since the war there has been no pasta, no lentils and no fruit juice allowed into Gaza. There is no way in anybody's imagination that these are dual-use items."

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