TEL AVIV // Hillary Clinton, on her first Middle East visit since being appointed US secretary of state, asserted yesterday that movement towards the creation of a Palestinian state was "inescapable" and that the US will actively pursue its establishment as part of a peace agreement with Israel. Speaking at a joint press conference in Jerusalem with Tzipi Livni, the outgoing Israeli foreign minister, Mrs Clinton said: "The United States will be vigorously engaged in the pursuit of a two-state solution every step of the way. It is our assessment that eventually, the inevitability of working towards a two-state solution is inescapable."
Her comments indicated a possible clash with the stance of Israel's incoming government, which is expected to be made up of hardline parties that oppose granting the Palestinians their own independent state as a way to solve the long-simmering conflict. Mrs Clinton also provided a strong signal yesterday that the US was seeking to improve its troubled relations with Syria by announcing that the Obama administration planned to send two envoys to Damascus for "preliminary conversations".
The top US diplomat's meetings in Jerusalem yesterday also included a discussion with Benjamin Netanyahu, the right-wing Likud leader charged with forming a governing coalition in the coming weeks. In views that may prompt friction with the Obama administration, Mr Netanyahu has dismissed negotiations on a Palestinian state as pointless and prefers instead to focus on improving the Palestinian economy in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. However, Mr Netanyahu is believed to be open to granting the Palestinians limited sovereignty, preventing them from controlling their own airspace, electromagnetic spectrum and border crossings, and forbidding them from having an army and signing military alliances.
When asked about a possible confrontation with Mr Netanyahu's coalition on the Palestinian issue, Mrs Clinton acknowledged that disagreements were possible with any Israeli government but stressed the close ties between the two countries. "We happen to believe that moving toward the two-state solution, step by step, is in Israel's best interests. But obviously, it's up to the people and the government of Israel to decide how to define your interests."
Mr Netanyahu, speaking following a meeting of more than an hour with Mrs Clinton, attempted to dampen speculation of a potential rift. "The will to co-operate in a close and real way was expressed very strongly. We said we would meet again after the government is formed and work in a close partnership to bring prosperity, security and peace to our region." In her comments on Syria yesterday, Mrs Clinton said it would be "a worthwhile effort" to dispatch two US emissaries to Damascus.
Washington recalled its ambassador to the country three years ago, accusing Syria of supporting terrorism following the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister of Lebanon. Anti-Syrian politicians in Lebanon have blamed the killing on Damascus, which has denied any involvement. "We have no way to predict what the future of our relations concerning Syria might be," Mrs Clinton said in Jerusalem. On dispatching the envoys, she said: "There has to be some perceived benefit of doing so for the United States and our allies and our shared values."
News agencies yesterday reported that the officials to be sent to Syria are Jeffrey Feltman, acting assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs and a former ambassador to Lebanon, and Daniel Shapiro, who is in charge of Middle East issues at the White House's National Security Council. Mrs Clinton's statement was a further sign of warming relations with Syria. At a Gaza reconstruction conference in Egypt on Sunday, she shook hands and spoke briefly to Walid al Moualem, Syria's foreign minister, and hinted the US may press for an agreement between Israel and Syria by pledging to pursue peace between the Jewish state and the Arabs on "many fronts".
Improved ties between the US and Syria could facilitate a peace process between Israel and its northern neighbour, whose indirect negotiations under Turkish mediation last year were frozen when Israel launched a 22-day assault in the Gaza Strip in December. Israel has said it wants Syria to cut its ties with Hamas, the Palestinian group that controls Gaza, and with Lebanon's Hizbollah movement before clinching a deal. However, a pact may also be hampered by the objection of Mr Netanyahu and his right-wing allies to withdraw from the Golan Heights, which Syria has demanded.
Mrs Clinton yesterday also discussed with Israeli officials the country's concern about Iran's nuclear ambitions. Israel views Iran's nuclear programme as the biggest threat to its existence and has not ruled out military action against Tehran. Mrs Clinton, while reiterating the Obama administration's intention to actively seek to engage Iran on issues including the nuclear plans, said the US shares Israel's concern. "When we talk about engagement with Iran, do not be in any way confused, our goal remains the same: to dissuade and prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and continuing to fund terrorism."
Mrs Clinton is due in Ramallah today for talks with Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad, the president and the prime minister of the western-backed Palestinian Authority, respectively. firstname.lastname@example.org