WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton headed for a global security conference in Germany on Friday as U.S. planners struggle to assess how Egypt’s political crisis may rewrite both the future of the Middle East and the deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Clinton will meet her European Union counterpart Catherine Ashton and other world leaders at the Munich conference, where she is also due to finalize the new U.S.-Russia nuclear arms pact with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
She is also due to lead the U.S. team at a meeting on Saturday of the “Quartet” of Middle East peace mediators, which includes the EU, Russia and the United Nations.
The meeting, originally planned to discuss how to nudge Israel and the Palestinians back to peace talks, looks certain now to be dominated by the mounting revolt against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who for 30 years has been a key U.S. ally and a central player in Middle East peace efforts.
Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace agreement with Israel, and Mubarak still plays a constructive role, U.S. officials say. Many in Washington and Jerusalem fear that any government that succeeds Mubarak’s may follow a radical Islamist line, which could hugely complicate U.S. efforts in the region.
“Egypt obviously is the major issue of the day right now ... but especially in Europe there is a feeling that what is happening in Egypt calls for an even more invigorated peace process. It is important that the Quartet meets and coordinates its views,” said Robert Danin, a former Quartet advisor and a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank.
The United States succeeded in relaunching direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians in early September only to see the negotiations grind to a halt three weeks later when Israel’s partial moratorium on building in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank expired.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas refuses to return to talks until Israel freezes construction on land it captured in a 1967 war. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who heads a coalition dominated by settler parties, has not acceded to this demand.
Danin said a change in government in Egypt did not have to mean that Cairo would abandon its peace treaty with Israel, but it may be less enthusiastic about the broader peace process.
“Nothing is assured. But Egypt has strategic reasons for wanting the peace treaty with Israel and those things won’t necessarily change,” Danin said.
Egypt’s turmoil is already having a far broader impact. U.S. officials are also watching longtime ally Jordan and nearby Yemen, where tens of thousands of people protested on Thursday against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is helping in U.S.-led efforts against al Qaeda.
Clinton will also likely touch on Iran after talks in Istanbul last month produced no discernible movement in Tehran’s standoff with world powers over its nuclear program.
The Munich conference will give Clinton an opportunity to liaise with U.S. allies including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron and top officials from both Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the NATO-led international force is working to hand over security duties to Afghan forces despite uncertain progress on the battlefield.
Editing by Will Dunham