December 29, 2008 / 10:23 PM / 10 years ago

Hillary Clinton faces tough Mideast challenge

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Israel’s attacks on Gaza could test Hillary Clinton’s mettle as the next top U.S. diplomat mediating between Israelis and Palestinians.

Secretary of State nominee Hillary Clinton meets with Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN)(not pictured) at his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, December 10, 2008. REUTERS/Jason Reed

As incoming President Barack Obama’s secretary of state, she will have to overcome a view of some in the Arab world she is more interested in supporting Israel than being even-handed.

Once she stops being a U.S. senator from New York to take her new job, Clinton could find herself pursuing the same Middle East peace that eluded her husband, former President Bill Clinton, in the final months of his presidency in 2000.

University of Maryland professor Shibley Telhami said opinion polls he conducted earlier this year in Arab countries indicated Clinton was viewed as someone who, like her husband, would work to advance Middle East peace.

“Bill Clinton had a much more positive image in the Middle East (than George W. Bush) and Hillary is seen in a similar light,” he said, adding that her past support for Israel would not necessarily count against her.

But even if Clinton were ready to take on the role of peace broker early on, the upsurge in violence and Israeli and Palestinian elections expected over the next two months, would likely delay meaningful discussions.

“There is too much blood spilled for this to end quickly.” said Telhami.

Aaron Miller, who advised six secretaries of state in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, said Clinton was respected in the region and disputed that she was viewed as pro-Israeli.

He said Clinton’s personal and political battles as a former U.S. presidential candidate, made her tough and resilient — desirable attributes in Middle East diplomacy.

More important than her prowess as a mediator will be how high a priority Obama makes the Israeli-Palestinian issue among the many challenges facing his new administration.

“She will have to do the heavy lifting but she must be empowered and backed up and supported by the president,” said Miller, who is now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

NOT YET TESTED

Clinton, who lost the Democratic presidential nomination to Obama, needs to maintain a strong relationship with the new president to be effective, he added.

While well-versed in foreign affairs, Clinton has yet to be tested in a crisis, such as the Israeli offensive against Gaza to suppress Palestinian rocket fire against its citizens.

“She (Clinton) does not have a lot of experience in the Byzantine negotiations in the Arab world,” said Jeffrey White, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The Bush administration has so far backed Israel’s actions in Gaza and demanded the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas stop firing rockets into Israel and agree to a lasting ceasefire.

Edward Walker, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, said Clinton should go the region early. Her confirmation hearings are expected in mid-January and she could take office immediately after Obama’s January 20 inauguration.

“What the administration needs to do is to say that we consider Israeli-Palestinian peace a priority but that we cannot force the parties into an agreement unless they are prepared for an agreement,” Walker said.

Outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has spoken to Clinton since the latest violence erupted, made Israeli-Palestinian peace a priority in her past two years.

She has said both sides are closer than ever to an agreement, but Hamas was always left out of negotiations because it refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist. Washington regards President Mahmoud Abbas who rules the West Bank as the sole legitimate Palestinian representative.

Experts say it is unlikely there will be any dramatic shift in U.S. policy toward Hamas, which has been isolated and sanctioned by Washington and its close allies.

“There will not be a turnaround in U.S. policy. They are going to have the same problems and that is how do you put Humpty Dumpty back together again?,” said Walker.

Editing by Alan Elsner and Howard Goller

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