RAMALLAH, WEST BANK // Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, made the rounds of Palestinian Authority leaders in Ramallah yesterday, reiterating Washington's support for a two-state solution, criticising Israel's planned demolition of 88 houses in East Jerusalem and praising the PA's reconstruction programme for the Gaza Strip. Mrs Clinton met Mahmoud Abbas, the PA president, at his headquarters in Ramallah, where she called the planned demolition of homes in the Silwan neighbourhood of East Jerusalem "unhelpful".
"Clearly this kind of activity is unhelpful and not in keeping with the obligations entered into under the road map," Mrs Clinton said, in reference to a 2003 US-mediated peace plan. "It is an issue that we intend to raise with the government of Israel and the government at the municipal level in Jerusalem," she added at a joint news conference with Mr Abbas. Aides to Mr Abbas said the Palestinian leader had asked Mrs Clinton to put pressure on Israel to end its settlement construction in the West Bank and state clearly that it is in favour of a two-state solution. Benjamin Netanyahu, the head of Likud, a right-wing party, who is trying to form the next Israeli government coalition, has yet to unequivocally voice support for such a solution.
Mrs Clinton met Mr Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Tuesday and reiterated US support for a two-state solution, potentially putting Washington on a collision course with the next Israeli government. Mr Netanyahu has proposed an "economic peace" plan to replace political negotiations, something Mrs Clinton was critical of, saying an economic initiative without a political solution has no chance of success.
The United States is aware that Palestinian patience is wearing thin after a year of inconclusive negotiations under the Annapolis process, during which time Israeli settlement expansion continued apace in contradiction to the road map. The failed Annapolis process and the Israeli offensive on Gaza both caused a significant dip in the popularity of Fatah, Mr Abbas's faction, in favour of Hamas, Fatah's Islamist rival that is in control of the Gaza Strip and that won parliamentary elections in 2006.
In an interview this week, Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said that if the new Israeli government does not accept the principle of a two-state solution, Palestinians would end the negotiations process. "If an Israeli government is formed that does not accept the two-state solution, does not respect signed agreements and continues with settlement [building], it will not be our partner and we will not hold political negotiations with it."
Yesterday, Mrs Clinton met Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Authority prime minister, and repeated that Washington was committed to the establishment of a Palestinian state. She also praised Mr Fayyad's plan for the reconstruction of Gaza, battered after 19 months of Israeli closure and a brutal three-week offensive this year. Mr Fayyad had outlined his plan on Monday in Sharm el-Sheikh during a multinational conference for donor countries in which US$5.2 million (Dh19m) was pledged for the reconstruction.
"I've told everyone that [Mr Fayyad's plan] was exactly what was required," said Mrs Clinton, who attended the conference. But little reconstruction can take place in Gaza as long as Israel continues to keep crossings into Gaza closed to anything other than humanitarian goods. International pressure is growing on Israel to open the Gaza crossings, but there is not likely to be any momentum unless Israel and Hamas agree on a ceasefire, over which Egyptian-mediated negotiations appear stuck.
In addition, although Hamas has said it wants any funding for reconstruction to reach the people who need it most, it also wants a role in determining how such funding is best spent, something the international community is trying to avoid by dealing only with Mr Fayyad and the West Bank-based PA. The success of just-begun unity talks in Cairo is therefore also crucial to a speedy and efficient reconstruction programme in Gaza, and a key factor in this is how any potential unity deal might be received by the international community.
In this respect, Palestinians were less than impressed with Mrs Clinton's visit, in which she offered little hope of Palestinian reconciliation. "I was disappointed with her rhetoric on some issues, especially on reiterating the Quartet conditions on Hamas and her absolute commitment to Israel's security," said Ghassan Khatib, a political analyst and a former PA minister. "I think she simply restated the same line that we heard from the previous American administration and did not reflect the new spirit of the Obama administration."