JERUSALEM // The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has promised to work with the incoming Israeli government, easing tensions ahead of a meeting with the country's hardline prime minister-designate, Benjamin Netanyahu. Mrs Clinton, opening her first visit to the region as the top US diplomat, arrived during a transition period in Israel. Mr Netanyahu is putting together a new coalition government and is expected to be sworn in as prime minister within weeks.
His criticism of US-led Middle East peace talks during the recent election campaign has raised fears that his government could clash with the Obama administration. Mrs Clinton sought to play down such concerns, saying the US is ready to work with any Israeli government. "We will work with the government of Israel that represents the democratic will of the people of Israel," Mrs Clinton said after meeting Israel's ceremonial president, Shimon Peres.
Mrs Clinton stressed the US's "unrelenting" commitment to Israel's security and said rocket fire at Israel from militants in Gaza must stop. "There is no doubt that any nation, including Israel, cannot stand idly by while its territory and people are subjected to rocket attacks," she said. Ahead of the meeting with Mrs Clinton, Mr Netanyahu showed signs of backing off his previous pledges to abandon the current round of peace talks, launched in Nov 2007 at a US-hosted summit.
Mr Netanyahu planned to tell the secretary of state that his government will continue peace talks with the Palestinians, a member of Mr Netanyahu's Likud Party said. "I think that Hillary Clinton, when she comes today, will find Benjamin Netanyahu prepared to continue to hold negotiations, not only on economic projects but also political negotiations, a political process," said the Likud politician Silvan Shalom, a former foreign minister.
That message would mark a change in the hardline Likud leader's long-stated position that peace talks are a waste of time because of the weakness of the Palestinian leadership. He has suggested in the past he would instead invest in the Palestinian economy while continuing Israel's military occupation of the West Bank indefinitely. But Mr Netanyahu appears to have altered his stance, at least outwardly, since Israel's national election last month, after which he was chosen to lead the country's next government.
Freezing peace talks would set Israel up for a clash with the international community and the US, its most important ally. But Mr Shalom, who spoke to Army Radio, would not say that Netanyahu supports the creation of a Palestinian state in what is now Israeli-controlled territory, the key goal of US-backed peace negotiations. Mr Netanyahu also openly opposes any division of the holy city of Jerusalem, a central Palestinian demand.
Mrs Clinton arrived in Jerusalem on Monday evening from the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh, where she pledged US$900 million (Dh3.3bn) in aid at an international donors conference for rebuilding the Gaza Strip after Israel's recent offensive. On Tuesday she was scheduled to meet Israeli leaders in Jerusalem, including members of Israel's outgoing government, including the prime minister Ehud Olmert and foreign minister Tzipi Livni.
On Wednesday, she is to visit the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. Speaking at the Sharm el Sheikh conference, Mrs Clinton said the Obama administration was committed to pushing intensively to find a way for Israelis and Palestinians to exist peacefully in separate states, and called for urgent action to forge a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. Mr Netanyahu has several weeks to form a new governing coalition. His attempts to bring Ms Livni, his centrist rival, into a broad coalition government have failed so far, largely because of Mr Netanyahu's refusal to embrace Ms Livni's call for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
At present, it appears his most likely government is a narrow alliance of hardline and Orthodox parties opposed to significant concessions for peace. *AP