Clinton: U.S. May Cooperate With Syria

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has kicked off two days of meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. In Egypt Monday, Clinton said the U.S. is determining what — if any — areas of cooperation and engagement are possible with Syria. Clinton has made clear that she wants to push for comprehensive Arab/Israeli peace — suggesting the U.S. may encourage the Israeli-Syrian track as well as the Israeli-Palestinian track.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is meeting with Israel's leaders today as she continues to sound out major players in the Middle East about prospects for Arab/Israeli peace. Many of the officials she meets in Jerusalem will likely want to talk more about the threat that Iran's nuclear program poses to the region. It's an issue also raised by the Arab officials that Secretary Clinton has been meeting. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: On her first trip to the Middle East as secretary, Hillary Clinton has tried to show that the Obama administration will do things differently from its predecessor, pushing early and hard to promote Arab/Israeli peace. But on Iran she found herself reassuring partners that the U.S. is clear-eyed about the prospects for negotiations to limit Iran's nuclear program.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (U.S. Secretary of State): We have made our point to the people here in Egypt, in Jordon, as well as in the Gulf and elsewhere that, as President Obama said, we are willing to extend a hand if the other side unclenches its fist in order to have some process of engagement. But it will only be done in close consultation with our friends.

KELEMEN: When she met her counterpart from the United Arab Emirates, one of a series of meetings on the sidelines of a donors conference for the Palestinian in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt yesterday, Clinton said she doubts the Iranians will respond to the Obama administration's overtures; that's according to a top State Department official who was in on the meeting but asked not to be named.

At the same conference, Secretary Clinton also had a brief encounter with the foreign minister of Syria, an ally of Iran and a country shunned by the Bush administration.

Secretary CLINTON: we are reaching out to determine what, if any, areas of cooperation and engagement are possible, and that includes with respect to Syria.

KELEMEN: The secretary has made clear that she wants to push for comprehensive Arab/Israeli peace, suggesting the U.S. may encourage the Israeli/Syrian track as well as the Israeli/Palestinian track. But she stayed clear of making any specific policy pronouncements and she suggested she won't be pushing Israel too hard to ease the closure of Gaza, since Hamas is still firing rockets into Israel from the territory.

Secretary CLINTON: It is very difficult for any country to just sit and take rockets falling on its people. That is the crux of the Israeli problem. How are they supposed to respond when they continue to have that kind of attack?

KELEMEN: This is a particularly delicate time in Israel, which is still in the midst of coalition negotiations, so Clinton seems to be treading lightly here. She's not spelling out any new approach but rather setting the tone and showing she cares about promoting peace in the region.

Secretary CLINTON: I feel passionately about this. This is something that is in my heart, not just in my portfolio. And it is something that means a great deal to our special envoy. Some of you know that George Mitchell's father was Irish and his mother was Lebanese. Well, he solved half of his family's problems. So now he's here working on the second half, and we hope that we will see it come to fruition.

KELEMEN: Former Senator Mitchell flew with the secretary from Egypt to Israel. The two are to visit the West Bank tomorrow.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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