Clinton in Israel with an eye on US voters

Secretary of state gets in first just before arrival this month of Mitt Romney, Barack Obama's republican rival for the presidency.

Israel's president Shimon Peres, left, welcomes US secretary of state Hillary Clinton to his Jerusalem residence..
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TEL AVIV // Hillary Clinton, the United States secretary of state, held talks with top Israeli officials in Jerusalem yesterday in her first visit to the country in almost two years, part of a bid that analysts said was aimed at boosting American Jewish support for the US president, Barack Obama, ahead of November's election.

Analysts said Mrs Clinton may have arrived in lieu of Mr Obama, whose lack of visits to Israel since taking office has sparked concern among Israeli officials of possible deteriorating ties with the US.

Mrs Clinton’s meetings in Jerusalem may also have been timed to take place just ahead of a planned visit to Israel in late July by Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, who has frequently condemned Mr Obama for not showing enough support for Israel.

Her visit also appeared aimed at focusing on Iran’s nuclear ambitions and Israel’s relations with Egypt rather than signal a new US push for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Hours before Mrs Clinton arrived in Israel, Mr Obama suggested in an interview that both sides may not be ready for negotiations.

Yossi Alpher, an Israeli political analyst, said: “It seems that Clinton is coming, at least in part, as a replacement for Obama, showing the flag of the administration in anticipation of Romney visit. There’s also US concern about [an Israeli attack on] Iran in the run-up to the election as well as an attempt to help improve Israeli-Egyptian ties.”

Mrs Clinton’s trip to Israel, which culminated a 12-day, nine-country trip that included stops in Europe and Asia, followed meetings in Egypt.

Mrs Clinton, speaking in Jerusalem last night at the start of a dinner meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, suggested the two countries will closely cooperate on issues such as turmoil in Egypt and Syria.

She said: “We are living in a time of unprecedented change with a lot of challenges for us both … and we will continue to consult closely as we have on an almost daily basis between our two governments to chart the best way forward for peace and stability for Israel, the US, the region and the world.”

Mr Netanyahu had told Mrs Clinton that was keen to hear about her talks with Egypt’s newly elected Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi.

Senior Israeli government officials have grown increasingly concerned in recent months over deteriorating ties with Egypt – Israel’s only Arab peace partner aside from Jordan – following the ousting of Hosni Mubarak last year. Mr Morsi’s tenure as head of state has particularly unsettled Israel amid worries that an already cold peace arrangement could unravel as Islamists gain more power in Egypt.

Mr Netanyahu also said that Mrs Clinton and he were “going to be talking about the Palestinians. That is also an anchor of peace, and we have to invest every effort to maintain its future tranquillity and see if we can move the process forward”.

Mrs Clinton, speaking earlier in the day following talks with the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, indicated that Israel and the US viewed regional issues such as the turmoil in Egypt and Syria similarly. She said: “It is moments like these that friends like us have to think together, act together. We are called to be smart, creative and courageous.”

Some Israeli officials yesterday expressed optimism about ties with Egypt. Danny Ayalon, the deputy foreign minister, told an Israeli radio station that Mrs Clinton brought a “very calming message” that Mr Morsi was likely to focus on a “domestic agenda” rather than on relations with other countries. He added: “He has to rehabilitate the economy there … internal challenges that are really of utmost importance.” Mr Ayalon said he did not expect a change in the peace treaty in the “foreseeable” future.

Mrs Clinton arrived just after the departure from Israel of Tom Donilon, the White House national security adviser, and ahead of a trip to the country in the coming days by Leon Panetta, US defence secretary, in a flurry of visits that observers said was aimed to garner more backing from US Jews ahead of November’s ballot. The top US diplomat has not been in Israel since September 2010, despite frequent visits to the Middle East, likely due to the deadlocked peace talks and to what media reports say is the cold relationship between Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu, at least partly because of continued settlement growth.

Yesterday, Mrs Clinton also met with the Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak. “Your visit comes at an extremely interesting time, the whole Middle East is going through a major transition,” Mr Barak told her at the outset of talks at a hotel in Jerusalem.

She is also due to meet Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister. Despite Mrs Clinton having talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials, there are few expectations of a revived peace process ahead of the US election.

Late on Sunday, Mr Obama indicated that his failure to advance the peace process was at least in part spurred by unwillingness from both sides to negotiate. In an interview with WJLA-TV, a Washington DC station, he said: “I have not been able to move the peace process forward in the Middle East the way I wanted. It’s something we focused on very early, but the truth of the matter is that the parties, they’ve got to want it as well.”