Egypt is focus as Clinton visits Israel after nearly two years
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Israeli officials will discuss on Monday Egypt’s political upheaval, Iran’s nuclear program and the stymied Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Making her first trip to Israel in 22 months, and only her fourth visit as secretary of state, Clinton’s talks will focus first and foremost on the political transition in Egypt, where the Islamist President Mohamed Mursi took office two weeks ago.
The downfall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak last year has raised questions among Israelis about whether Egypt, the first Arab nation to have made peace with Israel, will adhere to that treaty under his Islamist successor.
Clinton flew to Israel from Egypt, where she held talks on Saturday with Mursi, a former Muslim Brotherhood member, who told her Egypt will respect its international treaties.
She also saw Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, head of the military council that took over when Mubarak was ousted and that is vying for influence with Mursi.
“At the top of it (her agenda) will be her impressions and assessment of the last two days that she spent in Egypt,” a senior U.S. official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
“She is bringing a very calming message,” Danny Ayalon, the Israeli deputy foreign minister, told Israel Radio. “By their (the U.S.) reckoning as well, Egypt’s agenda, and certainly President Mursi’s agenda, will be a domestic agenda.”
“He has to rehabilitate the economy there … internal challenges that are really of utmost importance,” Ayalon added. “There is no change (on Egypt’s commitment to the peace treaty) and in my estimate there will not be in the foreseeable future.”
Clinton anticipates a discussion about the Arab Spring, which not only brought about Mubarak’s downfall in Egypt but also sparked what has become a virtual civil war in Syria, leading to instability on two of Israel’s borders.
The U.S. official said Clinton also expected to have lengthy talks with Israeli officials about the Iranian nuclear program.
The United States and its allies suspect Iran of using its civilian nuclear program as a cover to develop atomic weapons. Iran denies that its nuclear work has a military dimension, insisting it is for electricity generation and medical needs.
The standoff over the issue has led the United States and other major powers to adopt a two-track approach of negotiating with Iran to try to curb its program while also imposing ever harsher economic sanctions.
Israel, widely thought to be the only country in the Middle East with a nuclear weapons capacity, has made clear it could strike Iran if diplomacy fails to halt its nuclear work.
ISRAEL’S IRAN WINDOW CLOSING
“With negotiations with Iran stalled and Israel’s self-declared window for action closing, the U.S. no doubt feels the need to keep the Israelis in lock-step with Washington through intensive high-level engagement,” said Rob Danin, an analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations who also advises Tony Blair, representative of the Quartet of Middle East mediators.
White House National Security Adviser Tom Donilon visited Israel over the weekend and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is due to visit shortly, the senior U.S. official said, describing this as part of normal, intense U.S.-Israeli engagement.
Clinton was scheduled to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and President Shimon Peres.
She will also see Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad but not President Mahmoud Abbas, whom she met on July 6 in Paris.
U.S.-sponsored peace talks froze in 2010 after Netanyahu rejected Palestinian demands that he extend a partial freeze on settlement construction that he had introduced at Washington’s behest.
Few diplomats expect any breakthrough ahead of the November 6 U.S. presidential election.
The senior U.S. official said Clinton had worked hard for an Israeli-Palestinian peace and failure of President Barack Obama’s administration to achieve it reflected the intrinsic difficulty of the conflict.
“Of course we would have liked to have been coming on this trip to sign a peace deal,” the official told reporters.
“The fact that we have been unable to do so is a testament to the difficulty of the challenge but the fact that we’re still at it is a testament to just how important the issue is to us and to her (Clinton) personally.”
(Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Christopher Wilson in Washington.; Editing by Christopher Wilson)