President Obama's decision to send his top diplomat on an emergency Middle East peacemaking mission Tuesday marked an administration shift to a more activist role in the region's affairs and offered clues to how he may use the political elbow room afforded by a second term.
President Obama’s decision to send his top diplomat on an emergency Middle East peacemaking mission Tuesday marked an administration shift to a more activist role in the region’s affairs and offered clues to how he may use the political elbow room afforded by a second term.
The move could pay dividends quickly if Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton helps arrange an end to the conflict between Israel and Hamas. She was scheduled to head to Cairo on Wednesday for talks with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi after discussions with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Clinton’s peacemaking trip is Obama’s clearest signal yet to Israel that it should begin to pull back its campaign against extremists in the Gaza Strip. The administration knows that with Clinton in the region, it will be harder for Netanyahu to make good on his threat to invade Gaza.
Obama and his administration have expressed full support for Israel since the conflict began last week, but diplomatic pressure is building for a cease-fire that would end Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocket attacks, both of which are killing civilians.
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Israel says it is pressing its air campaign in Gaza to reduce the extremists’ ability to fire rockets into Israel.
If Egypt was to succeed in brokering a cease-fire or a temporary calming of tensions, Clinton’s presence would add diplomatic heft to make it stick. She also could congratulate the new Islamist government there for upholding Egypt’s 30-year position as a peacemaker, a bottom-line goal for the United States as it remakes its relationship with Cairo after the fall of U.S.-backed autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
“In the days ahead, the United States will work with our partners here in Israel and across the region for an outcome that bolsters security for the people of Israel, improves conditions for the people of Gaza and moves toward a comprehensive peace for all peoples of the region,” Clinton said before meeting with Netanyahu in Jerusalem.
She was also to see Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas before heading to Cairo, where U.S. officials are hopeful a deal can be announced. Clinton will not see any representatives of the Palestinian Hamas faction that controls Gaza and pledges armed resistance against bordering Israel.
Clinton’s arrival follows days of intensive telephone diplomacy, including three conversations in two days between Obama and Morsi.
“Sometimes there’s no substitution for showing up,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday. “The president and she obviously thought that her going and actually sitting down with leaders — with Prime Minister Netanyahu, with President Abbas and with President Morsi — could help de-escalate the situation.”
Clinton has rarely been involved directly in Middle East peace talks in the first Obama term. Her two-day visit to the region is a potentially risky high-water mark for direct U.S. engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian issue by an administration that has kept the Middle East’s core conflict at arm’s length.