WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Six weeks into the job, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is starting to roll out the Obama administration’s approach to the most prickly foreign policy challenges from Arab-Israeli peace to Russia.
In her second foreign trip which ended early on Sunday, Clinton dipped into Middle East peacemaking and promised to work for a “comprehensive” Arab-Israeli peace.
She tried to charm European institutions in Brussels and literally hit the “reset” button in strained U.S.-Russia ties during a dinner with Moscow’s foreign minister in Geneva, and then went to Turkey.
Clinton also took first steps to deal directly with traditional enemies, “testing the waters,” she said, of a campaign promise of President Barack Obama to engage rather than isolate protagonists as the Bush administration had done.
In Israel, Clinton announced two U.S. envoys would be in Syria this weekend to explore better ties and as part of a U.S. bid to get a more comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.
While at NATO headquarters in Brussels, she made the new administration’s first public overtures toward Iran by inviting Tehran to a conference on Afghanistan, possibly at the end of this month.
But in Israel, where hawkish prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to form a government, Clinton faced a tougher challenge in trying to push for Palestinian statehood, which Netanyahu opposes.
She was criticized by Palestinians for not being tough on Israel over Jewish settlement expansion and the razing of homes in Arab East Jerusalem. She dodged questions on this issue in Israel and saved her comments until a news conference in the West Bank, calling Israeli moves “unhelpful.”
At an aid conference for Gaza in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, she continued the Bush administration’s harsh language over Hamas, saying not one dime of a U.S. aid pledge of $900 million would go to the militant group that runs Gaza.
Clinton’s rhetoric on Hamas was so similar to that of her predecessor Condoleezza Rice that the Palestinian newspaper al Quds ran a story with the headline “Condoleezza Clinton.”
As she did during her first trip as top U.S. diplomat to Asia last month, Clinton’s schedule was packed with back-to-back meetings with presidents and ministers but she also sought out nontraditional diplomacy.
Clinton said the motivation for her work as top U.S. diplomat, was to help children reach their “God-given potential” and she made room in her schedule for youth events.
In the West Bank she gave an interview to a Palestinian youth television station and was asked what she would have done if her daughter Chelsea had been “unfortunate enough” to have been born under Israeli occupation.
“I would love her ... I would never lose hope. I would never give up of the dream of a Palestinian state, no matter what happens,” she said.
In Ankara, she appeared on a popular talk show with four female interviewers, answering questions such as when she “last” fell in love (it was with Bill Clinton in 1971); her fashion sense (she said the “fashion gene” skipped her) and what she missed most (sitting in cafes and shopping).
While opening up on Turkish television, Clinton, who is surrounded by a coterie of advisers from her political past, limited access to the journalists traveling with her.
Unlike in Asia where she often briefed the “traveling press,” Clinton gave just one in-flight news conference the entire week despite appeals to her staff for more access.
But her celebrity status as former first lady. New York senator and presidential contender was evident, with foreign leaders gushing over the change in administration.
She attracted more than 500 “young professionals” at a European Parliament meeting in Brussels, with 800 more in overflow rooms. One man in the audience, wearing an “I Love Hillary” T-shirt, was an obvious pick for a question.
In Egypt, Arab reporters clapped at the end of her news conference and she was also applauded by European ministers.
But not everything ran smoothly.
In Geneva, where she met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for dinner, her gag gift of a “reset” button to symbolize a new chapter in U.S.-Russia relations went awry.
Taped onto the red button was the word reset in English and Russian. The only problem, said Lavrov, was that reset had been incorrectly translated by a Russian-speaker on her staff.
Instead of saying reset, it meant “overcharge” or “overload.” Such overloading was evident in her schedule, with Clinton running late for most events.
Reporting by Sue Pleming; editing by Jackie Frank