Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is using her second overseas trip to assess Mideast peace prospects, reconnect with European allies and remind her Russian counterpart that U.S. efforts to rebuild relations with Moscow have their limits.
Clinton, who departed late Saturday, kicks off the weeklong tour by attending an international conference in Egypt. On Monday she will announce a U.S. pledge of up to $900 million in humanitarian aid for rebuilding of the war-shaken Gaza Strip.
The Palestinians are seeking $2.8 billion. The United States does not recognize the Hamas movement that rules Gaza and will not allow aid money to flow through Hamas. Because of disagreements between the two Palestinian factions, some major Arab pledges — $1 billion from Saudi Arabia, $250 million from Qatar and $100 million from Algeria — have not materialized, an Arab League official said Saturday.
The pledge conference reflects in part a U.S. effort to move quickly to influence events there, where the Islamic militants of Hamas are aligned with Iran and opposed to peace talks with Israel. Hamas is at odds with the other Palestinian faction, Fatah, which takes a more moderate approach to Israel.
Clinton also will visit Israel to show President Barack Obama's commitment to finding a "two-state solution" that establishes a sovereign Palestinian state at peace with Israel.
After elections Feb. 10, Israel is operating under a caretaker government. The hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu is attempting to form a coalition government but the timing and outcome are in doubt.
Among leaders Clinton would be expected to visit in Israel are Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, leader of the centrist Kadima Party, which won one more seat in the election than Netanyahu's Likud. Netanyahu, who opposes moving forward in peace talks with the Palestinians, was asked to put together the next government because he has the support of a majority of the elected lawmakers.
Israel edged closer to a government of hawks and right-wing religious parties Friday after Netanyahu failed to persuade Livni to join a coalition that could help avert a showdown with the Obama administration. Obama has pledged to become "aggressively" involved in pursuing Mideast peace.
Clinton also will go to the West Bank to meet with leaders of the Palestinian Authority, including Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and President Mahmoud Abbas.
After focusing her first foreign trip on Asia, Clinton now is trying to build on what the administration believes is early enthusiasm in the Mideast and Europe for changing the dynamic of relations with America.
Daniel Fried, the assistant secretary of state for European affairs, said Friday a main theme of Clinton's visit to Brussels, Belgium, on Thursday will be "a sense of consolidating some of the enormous political good will on both sides of the Atlantic, and harnessing it to a common agenda — not an American agenda but a common trans-Atlantic agenda."
On Friday, Clinton is scheduled to meet in Geneva with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. He had a sometimes rocky relationship with Clinton's predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, a Russian affairs specialist.
Lavrov was quoted by Russian news agencies on Friday as saying he expected the meeting to focus on arms control. That was an issue of great frustration for the Russians during the Bush administration. President George W. Bush abandoned the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty early in his first term in order to accelerate the development of a missile defense opposed by Moscow.
Clinton has said the administration is willing to move ahead quickly on a replacement for the START arms treaty that is due to expire in December, and to consider deeper cuts in nuclear weapons.
Fried said that although the administration is interested in improving relations with Russia, Lavrov will be reminded that the U.S. does not accept the Russian argument that it has a sphere of influence in Central Asia and Eastern Europe that gives Moscow special say on issues like missile defense.
The administration's interest in engaging Russia is tempered by "cautionary notes," Fried said. That includes a concern that Moscow has gone too far in flexing its muscles in places such as the former Soviet republic of Georgia, where Russian troops fought a brief war last summer, and in opposing the NATO membership aspirations of countries including Ukraine, a a former Soviet republic on Russia's border.
"The most productive way (to move forward with Russia) is to do so building on areas where we have common interests, but also mindful of our differences — not shying away from them, nor abandoning our values and our friends," Fried said. "That makes for a complicated relationship with Russia."
Clinton plans to wind up her trip with a stop in Ankara, Turkey, to discuss a range of topics, including Obama's review of war strategy in Afghanistan. The Turks think the U.S. should put more focus on expanding and improving the Afghan security forces and on pressing Afghan authorities to reconcile with elements of the Islamic insurgency, rather than on putting tens of thousands more U.S. troops.