STEVE INSKEEP, host:
This week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tries to make progress on a decades-old problem. She sits down with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. The goal is to work out a deal within a year. We hardly need to mention that Middle East negotiators have set ambitious goals of that sort for many years. The challenge is to meet them.
Up to now, Secretary Clinton has kept her distance from this issue, at least in public. Now her role is changing, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN: With nearly two years of experience as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton has made headway in improving America's image. She's managed relations with Russia and China. But her negotiating skills have rarely been tested.
Mr. AARON DAVID MILLER (Middle East Analyst): You really have to be tough, if not devious.
KELEMEN: That's Aaron David Miller, who advised six secretaries of state on the Middle East and is now a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson center. He says Clinton is plenty tough, but he doesn't know whether she has, as he puts it, the negotiator's mindset.
Mr. MILLER: Does she see life as a chessboard, anticipating what the next move is going be. Or is the world a jigsaw puzzle on her living room floor and she sees where the pieces all fit together? Kissinger had that. Baker had it. You don't learn that. You don't go to school to be a secretary of state negotiator. It's intuitive. And in that regard she's never been tested.
KELEMEN: Up to now, Middle East envoy George Mitchell has been the one traveling back and forth to the region. Miller says the envoy will still play a big role - but Clinton, he argues, has to really own this issue now.
Mr. MILLER: If she were looking for a way to get into the secretary of state hall of fame, this would be the issue, because not only does this play to her strengths, it's an issue that the president cares a great deal about and presumably he'd be prepared to empower her. But in the end, for her that means one thing more than anything: getting into the middle of the mix.
KELEMEN: A top aide to Clinton says she has been playing an active role behind the scenes and by hosting the talks at the State Department without fanfare she's signaling the U.S. just wants Israelis and Palestinians to get back to business on the core issues dividing them. The aide - who asked not to be named - says Clinton has gained some on-the-job experience in negotiations. Last year she persuaded rivals Turkey and Armenia to agree to normalize ties and the aide says her legal training and listening skills were a big help. The official says the secretary has no illusions about the Middle East peace process, as she herself pointed out when she announced the talks.
Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (U.S. State Department): There have been difficulties in the past; there will be difficulties ahead. Without a doubt, we will hit more obstacles. But I ask the parties to persevere.
KELEMEN: She's likely to spend more time in the region - in part to persuade the Palestinian and Israeli publics that they should support the talks. But her aide says this is not the start of shuttle diplomacy. The plan is to get Netanyahu and Abbas into a regular rhythm of meetings. That's probably wise, according to Robert Danin, a former State Department official who until recently worked for the Middle East quartet - the U.S., Russia, U.N. and European Union. He says he's seen lots of trips by secretaries of state in the past, and after a while the Israelis and Palestinians stop paying attention.
Mr. ROBERT DANIN (Former State Department Official): And so the fact that Secretary Clinton has held back actually means that she has some capital in her pocket that she can now deploy. So it's important to go out to the region, but it's also important not to go too much and to pick your moments of when you intervene.
KELEMEN: Danin, who's now with the Council on Foreign Relations, says Clinton is known to be creative in problem solving, and that's a skill in high demand right now as Israel's partial moratorium on settlement construction is set to expire in late September.
Mr. DANIN: Prime Minister Netanyahu is adamant that he will not renew the moratorium. President Abbas is adamant that renewed settlement activity will scuttle the talks. And so that is a big problem.
KELEMEN: It's taken the administration so long to persuade the parties to sit down together and speak about the core issues that US officials hope the talks can survive this first of many expected hurdles.
Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.
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