New York Times: Expressing doubts about one of the Obama administration’s most important 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 New York Times
By MARK LANDLER
Published: March 3, 2009
JERUSALEM — Expressing doubts about one of the Obama administration’s most important 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 Mrs. Clinton in a meeting with the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, Abdallah bin Zayid al-Nuhayyan, stole some of the attention at a conference in Egypt devoted to the reconstruction of Gaza.
“It’s doubtful that Iran would respond,” she said, according to a senior State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was describing a private meeting.
This was not the first time Mrs. Clinton had privately expressed skepticism about Tehran’s receptivity to the United States overture. But her reference to it in talks with an Arab state is noteworthy because it offered a foreign audience a glimpse into the calculations of the Obama administration.
American officials privately say an overture to Iran could pay off, no matter how it reacts. A positive response would be a breakthrough, while a rebuff could put Tehran on the defensive, potentially undermining the posturing of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at home and encouraging America’s allies to intensify sanctions against the government.
Pressed for details on her comments about Iran, Mrs. Clinton declined to elaborate but said she told several Arab officials that the United States would “consult constantly” with them on its policy toward Tehran.
Mrs. Clinton also sought to open a fresh American chapter in the Middle East, declaring to Arab and European leaders that the United States was “committed to a comprehensive peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors” and would “pursue it on many fronts.”
The United States pledged more than $900 million in aid to the Palestinians, $300 million of which is relief for Gaza. The donors’ conference, in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik, raised nearly $4.5 billion, according to the Egyptian government, which acted as host.
Mrs. 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 the intractable problems of the region.
“We are reaching out to determine what, if any, areas of cooperation and engagement are productive, and that includes Syria,” she said at a news conference at the end of the meeting. In expressing her commitment to peace, Mrs. Clinton invoked her background as an advocate for children and the efforts of her husband, former President Bill Clinton, to broker a peace deal. “This is something that is in my heart, not just my portfolio,” she said to applause from a room of Arab journalists.
But Mrs. Clinton can go only so far. On delicate issues — like whether to deal with a Palestinian government that includes the militant group Hamas — the United States is yet not ready to shift course.
Mrs. 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 clearly exclude Hamas, which, she noted, continues to launch rockets at Israeli towns.
The American aid money, she said, would go only to the Palestinian Authority and would have strings attached to guarantee that 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 that would include Hamas. Europeans have also pressed Israel harder than has the United States to open border crossings to Gaza, something it has refused to do for fear of strengthening Hamas.
Hamas has demanded the opening of the crossings as part of negotiations for a truce with Israel. Israel is insisting on an end to rocket fire from Gaza, a halt to weapons smuggling and the release of a captive Israeli soldier.
After a day of meetings, European officials seemed convinced that the United States would increase its pressure on Israel during Mrs. Clinton’s talks with Israeli leaders here on Tuesday.
“She will certainly make the case for that, that we are making,” said Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the European commissioner for external relations. “We are not yet satisfied with the openings.”
Mrs. Clinton said later that she would only raise specific issues with the next Israeli government. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud leader who is putting together that government, may end up with a narrow right-wing coalition that would be reluctant to loosen border controls.
The head of the United Nations Development Program in Gaza, Khaled Abdel Shafi, expressed worries about how much of the aid would actually reach people. “The problem is not only with the money,” he said, “but with the siege, cease-fire and national reconciliation.”
During her meetings with Palestinian leaders in the West Bank on Wednesday, Mrs. Clinton is likely to hear anger over Israel’s continuing construction of settlements on occupied land there.
Nearly 300,000 Israelis live in such settlements, in addition to another 250,000 in East Jerusalem, also on land captured in the 1967 war. The Palestinians hope to build their state on that land and argue that settlement building drives that goal further and further away.
Peace Now, an Israeli advocacy group that opposes the settlements, issued a report on Monday alleging that tens of thousands of new housing units were in the planning stage.
The report, clearly issued to coincide with Mrs. Clinton’s arrival, said some 6,000 new units had been approved and another 58,000 were awaiting approval. “If all the plans are realized,” the report said, “the number of settlers in the territories will be doubled.”
Ethan Bronner contributed reporting from Jerusalem, and Taghreed El-Khodary from Sharm el Sheik, Egypt.