U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged on Tuesday to press hard for Palestinian statehood and open dialogue with Syria, putting Washington on a possible collision course with Israeli Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu.
"We happen to believe that moving towards a two-state solution is in Israel’s best interests," Clinton, referring to the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, told a news conference with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
"It is our assessment that eventually, the inevitability of working towards a two-state solution is inescapable," she said.
Netanyahu, whom Clinton was to meet later in the day, has spoken of Palestinian self-government but has shied away from saying he would back a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict.
Meanwhile, Clinton said the United States will dispatch two senior officials to Syria for talks on bilateral issues.
"We are going to be sending two officials to Syria," Clinton said. "There are a number of issues we have between Syria and the United States as well as the larger regional concerns that Syria obviously poses."
The officials are Jeffrey Feltman, undersecretary of state for the Middle East, and Daniel Shapiro, a senior official from the White House.
Talks with Syria
The two officials are in the Middle East with Clinton and will leave for Damascus when she leaves Israel on Wednesday.
"We have no way to predict what the future of our relations concerning Syria might be," she said. "We don’t engage in discussions for the sake of having conversations.”
"There has to be a purpose to them, there has to be a perceived benefit for the U.S.,” Clinton added.
Clinton exchanged a few words with her Syrian counterpart Walid Muallem during an international conference on Gaza reconstruction in Egypt on Monday.
The administration of President George W. Bush was criticized for making efforts in Arab-Israeli peacemaking too late. President Barack Obama has said it will be a priority and Clinton said she would push on "many fronts" early on.
"I feel passionately about this. This is something that is in my heart, not just in my portfolio," Clinton said on Monday after an international donors’ conference in Egypt where the United States pledged $900 million for Gaza and the Western-backed Palestinian Authority.
Talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians, re-launched at a U.S.-sponsored conference in Annapolis, Maryland, in November 2007, were halted after Israel’s December military offensive in Gaza, which was in retaliation for rocket attacks on the Jewish territory.
Right to Defend Itself
Before arriving in Jerusalem, Clinton said she was very troubled by the continuing rocket attacks and reiterated the Jewish state had a right to defend itself, a message she will likely stress again publicly on Tuesday.
"We call upon all parties to move toward a durable ceasefire but it is very difficult for any country to just sit and take rockets falling on its people," Clinton said.
She has also sought to show strong financial support for Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas and pledged $900 million in U.S. aid on Monday, with a third going to help people in Gaza but the bulk aimed at boosting Abbas.
Abbas’s Fatah movement is involved in reconciliation talks with Hamas and other Palestinian factions and Clinton will face questions over how the United States would deal with a unity government that includes the militant group.
At the aid conference, Clinton maintained Washington’s tough line against Hamas and was adamant no money would go to the Islamist group, saying it must recognize Israel, renounce violence and sign on to past Israeli-Palestinian agreements if it wanted to come out of isolation.
Arab and European ministers pressed Clinton to push the Israelis to open up border crossings into Gaza and stop Jewish settlement activity.
But asked in Sharm el-Sheikh whether she would raise these issues, she sidestepped the question.
On Wednesday, Clinton visits the West Bank to see Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and in a departure from her predecessor Condoleezza Rice’s more formal style of diplomacy, she plans to address students at a school there.
"To me, this is about what happens to the children of Gaza and the West Bank," Clinton said.
Doubling the Settlers
Underscoring the potential for division between the new U.S. and Israeli administrations, the anti-settlement Peace Now group said in a report released on Monday that the housing ministry has plans that would nearly double the number of Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank.
Israeli settlements there have long been one of the main obstacles to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Peace Now said government plans, most of which have not yet received the green light, look to build 73,000 new homes in the West Bank.
"If all the plans are realized, the number of settlers in the territories will be doubled" to more than 570,000, the group said.
"The completion of these projects will make the plan of creating a Palestinian state next to Israel totally unrealistic," Peace Now head Yariv Oppenheimer told army radio.