Hillary Clinton is delving into Israeli-Palestinian politics for the first time since she became secretary of state.
She leaves this weekend for Egypt, Israel and the West Bank and is bringing with her a $900 million aid package to help rebuild Gaza. That goal is just one of the many challenges awaiting her.
On her first trip abroad as secretary, Clinton managed to get out of government buildings and reach out to young people across Asia — speaking candidly along the way. But this time, she's expecting to spend a lot of time in formal meetings, especially in Israel, which is still trying to put together a government after inconclusive elections earlier this month.
She'll have to meet with all the major players — and be fairly cautious — according to a former State Department Middle East Adviser Aaron David Miller, now at the Wilson Center for Scholars.
"On this trip, the last thing the secretary should be doing is making tough or contentious or provocative statements at a time when the Israelis are trying to put together a government," he says.
Miller says the U.S. does not have a good track record in influencing Israeli politics. So why should the secretary go at this delicate moment?
Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland, says she needs to show that the U.S. is doing something about Gaza, which is in ruins after an Israeli military operation meant to stop Hamas from firing rockets into Israel.
"The Gaza issue remains the prism through which the region is looking at American foreign policy," Telhami says. "For us here in Washington, Gaza was a war that ended, in the region it is a war that it is ongoing — at least in terms of the public coverage and the media and the humanitarian crisis."
Secretary Clinton's first stop is Egypt for a donor's conference on Gaza. The U.S. and European allies are trying to figure out a way to ease an Israeli blockade and move in desperately needed aid — all without rewarding Hamas, which is seen as a terrorist organization in Israel and the West. Telhami thinks the only way to do that is to promote Palestinian reconciliation and a solid cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.
"If the idea is that the aid will be used to have the Palestinian Authority win at the expense of Hamas, it is hard to see how Hamas will cooperate," Telhami says.
With Palestinians divided — and Israelis looking more likely to have a right-wing government, led by Benjamin Netanyahu — Clinton is mainly in listening mode.
Jeffrey Feltman, a top State Department official in the Near East bureau, says Clinton wants to see what is possible.
"Not only do we want to address the very real needs in the Gaza Strip. We also want to move forward toward a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace," he says.
But experts like Miller are skeptical.
"On the Israeli-Palestinian track, the prospects of a conflict-ending agreement are slim to none. The leaders are too weak, the issues are too sensitive and the capacity for the troublemakers to disrupt the process is very high," he says. "I think even with a right-wing government there is a real chance — at least it has to be seriously tested — of an Israeli-Syrian agreement."
The Israeli-Syrian track is likely to be a topic for Clinton when she wraps up her trip in Turkey — a country that revived indirect peace talks. Syria's ambassador to Washington had a rare meeting at the State Department on Thursday, though Clinton said it is too early to tell whether U.S. relations with Damascus will improve.