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Clinton dives into Arab-Israeli peacemaking

The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton makes her way to the Middle East to try to kick-start the peace process.

WASHINGTON // The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was on her way to the Middle East and Europe today, delving into Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking for the first time at an international donors conference for Gaza. The United States is expected to pledge more than US$900 million at Monday's one-day conference in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. The funds are aimed at post-conflict recovery in Gaza after Israel's invasion in December.

Washington also wants the money to bolster the western-backed Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and has stipulated no US funds will go through the militant group Hamas, which rules Gaza while Mr Abbas' Fatah movement runs the West Bank. "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," Mrs Clinton told Voice of America in an interview taped on Friday.

Human rights groups and experts say no matter how much money is offered for Gaza, it will make little difference if goods cannot get through Israeli border crossings. "All the pledges of aid this conference is expected to produce will be worth next to nothing if the donors do not demand that Israel open the borders to commercial goods as well as humanitarian essentials," said Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch.

After the conference in Egypt, where she will also meet European and Arab leaders, Mrs Clinton travels to Jerusalem to see Israeli politicians trying to cobble together a new government after February elections. Palestinians are also trying to form a government. "There is not a lot of pressure that can be applied at a time when there is a government still in formation," said Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

Mrs Clinton plans to meet Benjamin Netanyahu, the hawkish Israeli prime minister-designate who on Saturday abandoned efforts to form a broad coalition government with centrist Tzipi Livni. Mrs Livni has accused Mr Netanyahu of insufficient commitment to the talks, and her decision not to form a government weakens Mrs Clinton's effort to kick-start the peace process her husband, former president Bill Clinton, failed to deliver on.

After meeting Mr Abbas in his West Bank office and the prime minister Salam Fayyad, Mrs Clinton will travel to Brussels to see Nato foreign ministers. In a bid to improve poor US ties with Moscow under the Bush administration, Mrs Clinton plans to have dinner with the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva before finishing up her week-long trip with a stop in Turkey on Saturday. * Reuters

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