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Clinton to Mideast and Europe to soothe allies

Published on 28/02/2009

WASHINGTON -- Traveling to both regions for the first time as America's top diplomat, the former first lady could put the best foot forward of the fledgling administration of President Barack Obama, who has vowed a new spirit of global cooperation.

At the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, where Clinton will attend Monday a donors conference aimed at rebuilding the Gaza Strip, she will have to respond to the worries of European leaders who want Washington to pressure Israel to improve aid distribution to the Palestinian enclave, which has been beset by Israeli blockades.

"We would like the Israelis to go further," said European External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

The United States is reportedly mulling a 900-million-dollar aid package to rebuild Gaza but Clinton said Friday the aid would depend on how well the Palestinians meet the conditions of the diplomatic quartet of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.

"I will be announcing a commitment to a significant aid package, but it will only be spent if we determine that our goals can be furthered rather than undermined or subverted," she told Voice of America radio.

With Arab backing, the quartet has laid out three conditions that any Palestinian partners in peace talks with Israel must meet: renouncing violence, recognizing Israel and abiding by previous agreements.

On Thursday in Brussels, Clinton is scheduled to meet with her NATO counterparts and join them at an informal dinner, along with Swiss officials.

"There is an overarching theme to the trip to Brussels which is the reconnection of the United States with Europe and really a sense of consolidating this enormous political goodwill on both sides of the Atlantic," said interim Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Daniel Fried.

The goodwill would be harnessed "to a common agenda, not an American agenda but a transatlantic agenda," added Fried, citing the situation in war-ravaged Afghanistan and US relations with Russia.

The Bush administration had a strained relationship with some European allies in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. But Obama’s election was warmly welcomed in European capitals, where leaders were tripping over each other to congratulate the new president after his inauguration.

In Geneva, Clinton will have her first head-to-head meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

The meeting would use "the opportunity of a new American administration to capitalize on the many areas where the US and Russia have common interests and can work in a common fashion, particularly on arms control," Fried said.

Clinton will also assess herself the state of affairs in the Middle East when she travels to Jerusalem and Ramallah on Tuesday and Wednesday.

But with an Israeli government not yet formed after elections earlier this month while the Palestinians near a unity government, there is little hope for any tangible progress on the tattered Middle East peace process.

Fatah and Hamas agreed Thursday to work together to form a unity government to end factional feuding, but Clinton said the Egyptian-sponsored talks would only yield results if Hamas agrees to abide by the quartet’s conditions.

"I believe that it’s important, if there is some reconciliation and a move toward a unified authority, that it’s very clear that Hamas knows the conditions that have been set forth by the quartet, by the Arab summit," she said.

Clinton will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, President Shimon Peres, diplomatic chief Tzipi Livni and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been charged with forming the new government, said interim Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman.

The peace process will be discussed during several bilateral meetings on the margins of the Sharm el-Sheikh conference, Feltman said, noting that Clinton would meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

On her last stop, in Ankara, Clinton has a "very rich" program, Fried said, pointing to meetings with Turkish President Abdullah Gul, and Foreign Minister Ali Babacan.

The United States is seeking new routes to transit its military equipment to Afghanistan and Turkey could help, according to a senior State Department official who requested anonymity.

Sylvie Lanteaume / AFP / Expatica