Clinton hints at Syria deal as part of Middle East peace push
Rory McCarthy in Jerusalem
The Guardian, Tuesday 3 March 2009
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, began her first round of Middle East diplomacy yesterday by promising to pursue peace between Israel and the Arabs on "many fronts" as an international conference raised pledges of more than $4bn in aid to the Palestinians.
Clinton spoke at the donors' conference at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, where the Palestinian Authority was seeking a huge aid injection, partly for reconstruction in Gaza in the aftermath of Israel's three-week war.
Egypt's foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, said donors had pledged $4.48bn (£3.2bn) in funding to be spent in the next two years. It was "beyond our expectations", he said. Other previous but undelivered pledges were recommitted, bringing the total promised to $5.2bn - nearly double what the Palestinians had sought.
However, it is still unclear how much reconstruction can take place in Gaza while Israel continues its blockade, which prevents the import of materials such as concrete, glass and metal.
Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, said the situation at the Gaza crossings was "intolerable" and called for them to be opened. He also said it was essential that illegal weapons did not enter Gaza. Clinton promised to "vigorously" pursue a two-state peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, and her mention of peace on other fronts suggested the Obama administration may also push for a deal between Israel and Syria.
Later she shook hands and spoke briefly with the Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem - an unscheduled meeting that perhaps suggested warmer relations were coming. Washington recalled its ambassador to Damascus three years ago.
Clinton said the US would pledge $900m to the Palestinians, subject to approval by Congress, but warned of tight supervision of how the money would be spent. Although she did not mention Hamas she spoke forcefully against extremism and condemned the continuing firing of rockets into southern Israel. "We have worked with the Palestinian Authority to install safeguards that will ensure our funding is only used where and for whom it is intended and does not end up in the wrong hands," she said. "It is time to break the cycle of rejection and resistance, to cut the strings pulled by those who exploit the suffering of innocent people."
Clinton made no reference to the closure of the Gaza crossings, or to Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, which are a prime concern for the Palestinians.
Today she will meet Israeli leaders, including foreign minister Tzipi Livni and Binyamin Netanyahu, the rightwing Likud leader who will form the next government. Livni's Kadima party decided yesterday to go into opposition, making it ever more likely Netanyahu will head a narrow rightwing coalition that may find itself at odds with the US administration.
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