TEL AVIV // As Hillary Clinton begins her first official visit to Israel in Jerusalem and Ramallah today since becoming US secretary of state, commentators warned that Washington may find itself at odds with the next Israeli leadership on the future of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Mrs Clinton, who began her first Middle Eastern tour yesterday by attending the Gaza reconstruction conference in Egypt, is due to meet Israeli officials today and Palestinian leaders tomorrow. Her scheduled discussion in Jerusalem with Benjamin Netanyahu, the right-wing Likud leader who after elections last month was appointed to form Israel's next government, is likely to be most closely watched during her visit.
Mrs Clinton is arriving amid intensifying efforts by Mr Netanyahu to cobble together a governing coalition. His new government is expected to be made up of hardline parties that oppose the creation of a Palestinian state and are likely to resist making significant concessions for peace - especially territorial compromises - with either the Palestinians or with Syria. Such hawkish stances may spur clashes with the new US administration of Barack Obama, who has pledged to become "aggressively" involved in pursuing peace in the Middle East. Mrs Clinton stated last week that the United States was "still committed to a two-state solution" and that she hopes to make progress towards a negotiated settlement that would include establishing "an independent, viable Palestinian state".
Mrs Clinton's visit "may give an early indication of any disagreements on the Palestinian issue between the US and the next Israeli government", Barak Ravid wrote in Haaretz, the left-wing daily newspaper. Differences on pursuing peace with the Palestinians may not be the only source of possible friction between Mr Netanyahu and Mrs Clinton. Her husband, Bill Clinton, was known during his presidency in the 1990s for having tense relations with Mr Netanyahu, who served as Israeli prime minister from 1996 to 1999. Mr Netanyahu infuriated Mr Clinton during their first meeting in 1996 by lecturing him about the Arab-Israeli conflict, leading the then-US president to complain that the Israeli premier acted as though Israel were the real superpower, according to a book by Aaron Miller, a former US deputy Middle East envoy. Before his likely second term as prime minister, Mr Netanyahu has sought to soothe US fears of a possible deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian talks. Careful not to publicly rule out a two-state solution, he is believed to be open to a sovereign state for the Palestinians with limitations including blocking them from controlling their own airspace and border crossings or having their own army.
Mr Netanyahu, who had shown some pragmatism during his first premiership, may resist making more moderate statements now about the Palestinians because his best chance of forming a government is with hawkish factions that together with the Likud account for a 65-member majority of the 120-seat parliament. Mr Netanyahu has sought to broaden the coalition by wooing Kadima, the centrist party led by Tzipi Livni, and the centre-left Labour Party. Such partners could provide more parliamentary support and stability for his government and help him avoid the international condemnation he may face for leading a hardline cabinet. But Kadima's parliamentary faction yesterday decided that the party will head the opposition rather than join a coalition that rejects the two-state solution. As foreign minister, Ms Livni has led talks with the Palestinians since the US-backed Annapolis summit in Nov 2007. However, those negotiations have shown few tangible results. Labour may still join forces with the Likud-led government. Ehud Barak, the defence minister and Labuor leader, on Sunday said after a meeting with Mr Netanyahu that the two would continue talks, and he did not rule out taking part in the coalition. Despite facing pressure from inside his party to join the opposition following dismal election results, Mr Barak is believed to want to hold on to the defence portfolio. During Mrs Clinton's visit to Israel, other potential disagreements may arise on the issues of Iran's nuclear ambitions as well as reconciliation efforts between Hamas, which is shunned by the United States and European Union, and the western-backed Fatah. Mr Obama, in a change of policy from the Bush administration, has said he would be open to engaging with Iran on issues including its nuclear capabilities. Mr Netanyahu and other Israeli officials, who view Iran's nuclear ambitions as the biggest threat to Israel's existence, are sceptical about talks with Iran and have not ruled out military action against the country. Mrs Clinton has also expressed support for the idea of Palestinian unity amid renewed talks between Hamas and Fatah on a power-sharing pact, though has hinged US backing on Hamas's recognising Israel and abiding by such previous agreements as the Oslo peace accords. Mr Netanyahu, however, is believed to oppose Hamas as a negotiating partner and has said he would try to topple Hamas rule in Gaza. In Jerusalem, Mrs Clinton is also due to meet Ehud Olmert, the outgoing prime minister, and Ms Livni. Tomorrow, Mrs Clinton is scheduled to hold talks in Ramallah with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the western-backed Palestinian Authority and head of the Fatah faction, as well as with Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister. firstname.lastname@example.org