Clinton meets Israeli leaders amid regional upheavals


US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held top-level talks on Monday with Israeli leaders expected to focus on changes sweeping the Middle East, as well as Iran and the stalled peace process.
On the last leg of a 12-day, eight-nation tour, Clinton was also to brief Israeli leaders on a weekend trip to Egypt when she met with newly elected President Mohamed Morsi and military leader Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi.
Clinton wanted to have “a broader strategic conversation about more than a year of now of great change and transformation across the region,” a top State Department official told reporters late Sunday just ahead of her arrival.
It would be a kind of “comparing of strategic notes,” he said, adding she would also bring Israeli leaders “up to speed” on what is happening on the diplomatic front to try to end the bloodshed in Syria.
Clinton would also tell Israeli leaders, including President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that their counterparts in Cairo had reaffirmed support for Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel during her visit.
Egypt became the first Arab nation to sign a peace accord with Israel in 1979, and Clinton has repeatedly referred to it as “the cornerstone” of regional security.
Fears have been raised that Morsi, who emerged out of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood to be sworn in as Egypt’s first democratically elected president, might seek to renegotiate the treaty.
“Israel has a deep stake in Egypt’s role as a leader in regional peace and security and Egypt’s commitment to the Egyptian-Israeli treaty of peace,” the US official said.
Travelling with Clinton are US Middle East envoy David Hale and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, who represents Washington at the talks between world powers and Iran.
Clinton met first Monday with Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman at the foreign ministry in Jerusalem. A crowd of staff turned out to see the US secretary as she was greeted in the blazing sunshine by her Israeli counterpart.
She was also to meet with Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad, after talks on July 6 at the start of her trip in Paris with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
Direct Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations have been on hold since late September 2010 following an intractable dispute over settlements.
And the United States has sought so far in vain to bring the two sides closer together.
“Obviously, every day that goes by where there is not a peace agreement is a day, that leaves us unsatisfied,” the State Department official told reporters travelling with the delegation.
“Of course we would have liked to have been coming on this trip to sign a peace deal. We would have liked to have done that two years ago,” he said.
“The fact that we have been unable to do so is a testament to the difficulty of the challenge. But the fact that we’re still at it is a testament to just how important the issue is to us, and to her personally.”
The Palestinians are demanding that Israel halt construction on land they want for a future state and accept a framework for talks on borders.
And Abbas has also said Israel must release 123 Palestinians it has held since before the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords, claiming Israel committed to free them but has yet to do so.
But Israel wants immediate return to talks without preconditions.
Iran is also a major issue on the agenda, with the US seeking to “compare notes” with Israel both on Tehran’s suspect nuclear programme and “its activities in the region.”
Western nations and Israel have accused Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons under the guise of a civilian uranium enrichment programme, charges adamantly denied by Tehran.
But the United States has also accused Tehran of actively aiding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his brutal crackdown on opposition forces seeking to oust him.