Mideast Talks To Test Clinton's Negotiating Skills

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton i

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's diplomatic skills will be put to the test Thursday when she hosts Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the State Department. The U.S. is hoping to kick-start stalled Middle East peace talks. Alex Brandon/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Brandon/AP
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's diplomatic skills will be put to the test Thursday when she hosts Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the State Department. The U.S. is hoping to kick-start stalled Middle East peace talks.

Alex Brandon/AP

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been consulting her predecessors and past U.S. Middle East negotiators as she prepares to host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday.

By formally launching the talks at the State Department, Clinton is signaling that she wants the two sides to get back to business on the core issues dividing them, and that she will personally play an active role, said one of her closest aides, who asked not to be named.

Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars says, "You have to be tough, if not devious."

Getting Into The Mix

He says Clinton is "plenty tough," but he doesn't know whether she has "the negotiators' mindset" as former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and James Baker did.

"You don't learn that, you don't go to school to be a secretary of state negotiator," said Miller, who has advised six secretaries of state on the Middle East peace process. "It's intuitive."

Miller says that while George Mitchell, the U.S. Middle East special envoy, will have a role to play going forward, Clinton has to "own" this issue.

"If she were looking for a way to get into the Secretary of State Hall of Fame, this would be the issue, because it plays to her strength and it's an issue that the president cares a great deal about," he said. "But, in the end, for her that means one thing more than anything — getting into the middle of the mix."

Tough Road Ahead

One of Clinton's aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says she has been playing an active, behind-the-scenes role in persuading Netanyahu and Abbas to get back to direct negotiations, and she has gained some useful, hands-on experience in her nearly two years as secretary of state. When she persuaded rivals Turkey and Armenia to sign protocols to normalize relations last year, "the thing she did effectively was start by listening," her aide said, adding that Clinton's legal training was also useful.

She also knows "the whole cast of characters" in the Middle East through her years as first lady, senator and now secretary of state. Clinton has no illusions about the difficulties ahead, as she pointed out when she announced the talks.

"Without a doubt, we will hit more obstacles. The enemies of peace will keep trying to defeat us and to derail these talks," Clinton said. "But I ask the parties to persevere."

There are no trips on the schedule yet, but Clinton is likely to spend more time in the region, in part to persuade the Palestinian and Israeli publics that they should support the talks. Her aide says this is not the start of shuttle diplomacy. Rather, the plan is to get Netanyahu and Abbas into a "regular rhythm" of meetings.

'Capital In Her Pocket'

It is wise to intervene only when needed, says Robert Danin, who ran the Jerusalem office of the Middle East Quartet, a diplomatic group that includes the U.S., U.N., Russia and European Union. He has seen many secretaries of state in the past and says that after a while, the Israelis and Palestinians stop paying attention.

"The fact that Secretary Clinton has held back actually means that she has some capital in her pocket that she can now deploy," he says. "It's important that you go out to the region, but it's also important not to go too much."

Danin, the Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, says Clinton is known to be creative in problem-solving, a skill in high demand right now as Israel's partial moratorium on settlement construction is set to expire in late September.

"Prime Minister Netanyahu is adamant that he will not renew the moratorium. President Abbas is adamant that renewed settlement activity will scuttle the talks," Danin said. "And so that is a big problem."

Danin adds that it will require deft diplomacy.

It has taken the administration so long to persuade the parties to sit down together and speak about the core issues that U.S. officials hope the talks can survive this first of many expected hurdles.

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