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Monday, March 2, 2009

Clinton has doubts that Iran is open to discussions



Expressing doubts about one of the Obama administration's key diplomatic initiatives, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told an Arab foreign minister on Monday that she did not expect Iran to respond positively to an American offer of direct negotiations.

The comments, made by Clinton in a meeting with the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, stole some of the attention at a conference devoted to the reconstruction of Gaza.

"We're under no illusions; our eyes are wide open," Clinton said, according to a senior State Department official.

This was not the first time Clinton has privately expressed pessimism about Tehran's receptivity to the United States. American officials say a negative Iranian reaction could be useful because it would put Tehran on the defensive in its dealings with the international community.

But Clinton's reference to it in talks with an Arab state was noteworthy because it offered an international audience an early glimpse into the calculations of the Obama administration.
Clinton also sought to open a new American chapter in the Middle East, declaring to an audience of Arab and European leaders that the United States was "committed to a comprehensive peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and we will pursue it on many fronts."

The United States pledged more than $900 million in aid to the Palestinians, $300 million of which is for humanitarian relief to Gaza. The donors' conference, held in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh, raised a total of $4.28 billion, according to the Egyptian hosts.

Clinton did not signal any shifts in American policy, but the broad scope of her remarks suggested that the Obama administration was open to new approaches toward an intractable problem. "Time is of the essence," she said. "We cannot afford more setbacks and delays, or regrets about what might have been."

The speech, with its expansive tone and lack of new policies, underscored the dilemma the Obama administration faces in its early days. The White House is eager to show a new face abroad. But on a host of sensitive issues - like whether to deal with a Palestinian unity government that includes the militant group Hamas - the United States is not ready to shift course.

Clinton reaffirmed that the United States would deal only with a Palestinian unity government that renounced terrorism and recognized the right of Israel to exist. That would appear to exclude Hamas, which, she noted, continues to fire rockets at Israeli towns.

The U.S. aid money, she said, would go only to the Palestinian Authority and would have strings attached to guarantee it "does not end up in the wrong hands" - another reference to Hamas.

Some European countries are more receptive to dealing with a unity government, even if it includes Hamas. Europeans have also pressed Israel harder than the United States to open border crossings to Gaza, something it has refused to do out of fear that it would strengthen Hamas.

After a day of meetings, European officials seemed confident that Washington would increase its pressure on Israel when Clinton meets with Israeli leaders Tuesday in Jerusalem.

"She will certainly make the case for that, that we are making," said Benita Ferraro-Waldner, the EU commissioner for external relations. "We are not yet satisfied with the openings."

The Egyptian foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, said a unity government could be composed of technocrats rather than political figures and should be acceptable to the United States and Europe. "We expect the international community will deal with this government," he said at a news conference.

The U.S. aid was not the only money with strings. Arab countries donated more than $1 billion to the Palestinians, but directed that the money be channeled through the Gulf Cooperation Council, a group of six states. The restriction angered the Palestinian Authority, which had previously received aid directly from their Arab neighbors.

At her meetings with Palestinian leaders in the West Bank on Tuesday, Clinton will hear anger over Israel's continuing construction of settlements on occupied Palestinian land there.

Nearly 300,000 Israelis live in such settlements, in addition to 250,000 in East Jerusalem, also on land seized in the 1967 war. The Palestinians hope to build their state on that land and argue that the settlement building drives that goal further and further away.

Peace Now, an Israeli group that opposes settlements and monitors their building, issued a report Monday alleging that tens of thousands of new settlement housing units were in the planning stage. The report, issued to coincide with Clinton's arrival, says that 6,000 new units had been approved and an additional 58,000 were awaiting approval. "If all the plans are realized," the report says, "the number of settlers in the territories will be doubled."

Source : Herald Tribune

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