MICHELE NORRIS, host:
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, bringing with her a $900 million aid package to help rebuild Gaza.
But that goal is just one of many challenges awaiting her, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN: 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 of 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.
Dr. AARON DAVID MILLER (Wilson Center for Scholars): On this trip, the last thing that 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.
KELEMEN: 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, in ruins after an Israeli military operation meant to stop Hamas from firing rockets into Israel.
Professor SHIBLEY TELHAMI (University of Maryland): The Gaza issue remains the prism through which the region is looking at American foreign policy. For us here in Washington, Gaza was a war that ended. In the region, it's still a war that's ongoing, at least in terms of the public coverage in the media and the humanitarian crisis.
KELEMEN: Secretary Clinton's first stop is Egypt for a donors conference on Gaza. The U.S. and its European allies are trying to figure out a way to ease an Israeli blockade and bring in desperately needed aid, all without rewarding Hamas, 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 ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.
Prof. TELHAMI: If the idea is that the aid is going to be used to have the Palestinian Authority win at the expense of Hamas, it is hard to imagine what Hamas's incentive would be to cooperate.
KELEMEN: With Palestinians divided and Israelis looking more likely to have a right-wing government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, Secretary Clinton is mainly in listening mode. A top State Department official in the Near East bureau, Jeffrey Feltman, says Clinton wants to see what's possible.
Mr. JEFFREY FELTMAN (U.S. State Department): Not only do we want to address the very real needs in the Gaza Strip, but we also want to move forward toward that comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.
KELEMEN: Experts like Aaron David Miller are skeptical.
Dr. MILLER: 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.
I think even with a right-wing government, there is a real chance, and it at least has to be seriously tested, of an Israeli-Syrian agreement.
MICHELE KELEMEN: 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 Secretary Clinton said it's too early to tell whether U.S. relations with Damascus will improve.
Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.
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