No 'fireworks' expected at first Netanyahu-Clinton meeting

Secretary of state insists US won't budge on two-state solution; PM-designate's adviser: She is unlikely to discuss specifics.

clinton israel visit 248.88 (photo credit: Matty Stern/US Embassy Tel Aviv)
clinton israel visit 248.88
(photo credit: Matty Stern/US Embassy Tel Aviv)
Some 24 hours after reaffirming in Egypt Washington's commitment to a two-state solution, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is scheduled to meet on Tuesday with Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu, who has talked about the Palestinians governing themselves but has consistently stopped short of mentioning a full-blown Palestinian state. Israeli government officials said that both Clinton and Netanyahu would likely be in "listening mode," wanting to hear the positions of the other side. "Remember, this is their first meeting," one official said, adding that he did not expect any "fireworks" around either the two-state issue or construction in the settlements. Zalman Shoval, one of Netanyahu's top foreign policy advisers, said he expected that Clinton - like US special envoy George Mitchell, who met with Netanyahu on Thursday - would wait to discuss specifics until a new government was set up. He said Clinton would probably speak along lines similar to Mitchell's, and not to bring up "unexpected subjects." Mitchell, who will be accompanying Clinton, did not discuss the settlements with Netanyahu during their meeting. The Clinton-Netanyahu meeting is scheduled to last an hour and is the most important of the new US secretary of state's meetings with Israeli leaders on Wednesday. She will meet with President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. While those meetings would likely focus on past events, one Israeli diplomatic official said, the meeting with Netanyahu would deal with what will happen in the future. Netanyahu is expected to tell Clinton that he favors an approach whereby, rather than declaring up front that there has to be a Palestinian state and then seeing how it would come about, he would build up the elements that have to be in any self-governing entity and then see what would come out of that. Clinton, however, made it abundantly clear in the speech she gave at the Gaza reconstruction conference in Sharm e-Sheikh that Washington still believed in the two-state formula, and that Middle East leaders could count on President Barack Obama to take a more active approach than did his predecessor, George W. Bush. "It is time to look ahead," she said, with an eye to the human aspects of what years of regional conflict have meant for the Palestinians and others. "The United States is committed to a comprehensive peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and we will pursue it on many fronts," she said. "We cannot afford more setbacks or delays - or regrets about what might have been, had different decisions been made," she added, in an apparent reference to the failure of previous peace initiatives, including those pushed vigorously by her husband Bill Clinton's administration. Associates of Netanyahu and Israel Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman said they had no problem with Clinton mentioning several times in her speech that she was in favor of the creation of a Palestinian state. One Likud MK who opposes such a state responded bluntly, "So what? She also said she would be president about a thousand times, and did that happen?" Israeli officials said that despite media speculation on inevitable friction between an Obama and a Netanyahu administration, "everybody here is a grownup; we know their positions, and they know ours. We are friends and allies, and it is not realistic to think we are going to get into a boxing match over these issues." If Netanyahu's previous meeting with Mitchell is any indication of what to expect in the Clinton parley, the tone of the meeting is likely to be one of "let's be pragmatic and figure out how we can move things forward," according to the official. The impression Mitchell left on his Israeli interlocutors was that the US was still very much in the policy-review stage, talking and listening to everyone in the region and looking in a "very sober" and realistic manner at the situation. Since Clinton will be coming from the Gaza reconstruction conference in Sharm e-Sheikh, where the US pledged some $900 million to the Palestinians, her talks in Jerusalem are expected to focus on how to provide the aid without building up Hamas in the process. Likewise, Iran is also likely to be a focus of the talks, with the Israeli officials expected to express Israel's position that the US should set a time frame for its talks with Iran so Teheran does not drag the negotiations on indefinitely while continuing to develop its nuclear program. Clinton, who arrived in the capital on Monday evening, will also visit Yad Vashem and meet with a women's NGO called Sviva Tomechet, which provides support and funds for female entrepreneurs. Among those she will meet are an Ethiopian and a Russian immigrant who received help from the organization and set up businesses on their own. Diplomatic officials said this type of meeting represented a vastly different style than that of her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, who generally used to come to Israel, hold diplomatic meetings and leave, without these types of "media events." Clinton will hold a similar kind of meeting with Palestinian students learning English in a US-funded program in Ramallah, when she goes there on Wednesday. She will meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salaam Fayad. She is scheduled to leave the region on Wednesday afternoon. Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.