London, Asharq Al-Awsat- “I do not think we can say this is how it is going to be; it is more like jazz where we have to improvise,” said US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her visit to China. She was answering a question posed by the press about the nature of her relationship with the special envoys that have been appointed for the Middle East, Afghanistan, and North Korea; about when and how she will visit the Middle East region; and whether she will visit whenever a development takes place or to make progress. In clarification, Hillary said, “There is no one size fits all”. She said that the matter will be handled with improvisation, as jazz musicians do when they enter the stage and play a tune in an improvised manner inspired by the moment. It seems that this will be the approach adopted in the Middle East region.
Hillary Clinton will be visiting the Middle East for the first time as US Secretary of State on 2 March to participate in the international donors’ conference on the Gaza Strip that will be held in Sharm al-Sheikh. On 3 and 4 March she will visit Israel and the West Bank. George Mitchell, the US envoy to the Middle East, will precede her to the region on 27 February where he will inaugurate “a permanent office” for the United States in the city of Jerusalem that will act as a “link” between the Middle East region and Washington. A US Department of State official told Asharq Al-Awsat that the opening of a permanent office for the United States in Jerusalem aims at maintaining the contacts between Washington and all the sides in the Middle East. He added: “There are many issues in which we should be engaged. That is why we have decided to open a permanent office in Jerusalem that will be staffed by a number of US Department of State officials that have not yet been determined”. The US official, who declined to reveal his identity, added: “The aim of the office is to first affirm our commitment to the peace process and to continue our efforts regardless of whether Mitchell is in the region or not. These officials that will be selected will constitute a permanent link between the region and Washington”. On why the United States chose the city of Jerusalem as the venue for Mitchell’s office and not Amman, the Jordanian capital, or Cairo, the Egyptian capital, the US official said: “Amman is also close, but Jerusalem is in the middle of everything. The US officials can move from it to any other point, such as the West Bank.”
Meanwhile, US officials have told Asharq Al-Awsat, “The United States will move slowly but firmly in order to make progress in all the issues of the region”. These officials said that the goals behind Hillary’s and Mitchell’s visit may be summarized as “the exploration of the regional dynamics and drawing up preliminary plans to the complicated issues” within the framework of the US “two-state” vision. A US source explained that the moves that the US Administration has made so far, the most recent being the visit to Syria made by Senator John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, comes within the framework of a visualization that differs from that of former President George W. Bush’s Administration that divided the region into “moderate” states, “hard-line” states, “axis of evil” states, and “rogue” states. The US source added that the policy of the Barack Obama Administration is based on “re-stitching the networks of contact that were severed” between Washington and the regional sides due to the Bush Administration’s lack of engagement in the peace process on one hand and “not tying one region to another”; in other words, restoring normal relations among the countries in the region in order to help in solving the complex issues. The US source said that Senator Kerry’s visit to Damascus comes within this context: “On one hand, the visit confirms our determination to contact all the sides since Damascus has stopped its policies that impede a solution on several issues. On the other hand, it is hoped that this would lead to assistance in bringing the viewpoints of Hamas and Fatah closer together if Damascus carries out the US requests”. Regarding the Sharm al-Sheikh donors’ conference to reconstruct Gaza, a US Department of State official told Asharq Al-Awsat that the United States will donate huge humanitarian assistance to Gaza after the Congress approves these donations. The US official that declined to reveal his identity, added: “The United States views the 2 March meeting as an opportunity to work with the other international donors and organizations to respond to the urgent humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza. It also views the meeting as an opportunity to back the plans to rebuild the Palestinian [National] Authority [PNA] as an integral part of the future of the Palestinian state”. The source went on to say that the United States will urge all the donor countries to focus their assistance to meet the priorities of the Palestinian National Authority, including support for the PNA’s budget”. The US official emphasized that during her visit, Hillary Clinton will focus on making available conditions amenable to successful negotiations on the “two states for two peoples” solution. Hillary’s and Mitchell’s presence together will be the first test to the approach that the US Secretary of State will take with the special envoys that have been dispatched to several regions, especially at this early stage of the Administration amid past fears about possible inconsistencies in roles. However, the day before yesterday, Hillary played down the notion of possible inconsistencies in roles or tasks. She said that she “might send other envoys” in the future without referring to Dennis Ross who might be appointed as envoy to Iran but after the Iranian elections in June after the world finds out who the new Iranian president will be.
Anthony Cordesman, former official in the US Department of Defense and Department of State and presently an expert in the Centre for Strategic and International Studies Centre in Washington, has said that despite accelerated US steps in the Middle East, fast results should not be expected. Cordesman told Asharq Al-Awsat: “I believe that people always have impossible expectations. No peace envoy can meet all these expectations. But the fact is that there is an urgent need for the United States to show its concern for the peace process and stability in the region. This visit is the direct way to show this. I believe that we have to understand that this may take six months or more in order to enable the United States to set the pace of its moves and the extent and distance to which it can go”. Regarding prospects for success without starting a dialogue with Hamas, Cordesman said: “I believe that the problem we always face is that dialogue is better than no dialogue. But when no conditions are set and when you are not ready for dialogue, the dialogue turns into a dialogue for the sake of dialogue. Therefore, the question that Mitchell has to answer is: Is Hamas ready for dialogue? With which group in Hamas should the dialogue be held? Would it be better to engage Hamas in a dialogue at this time through countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia? Or is it better to try and work through the Palestinian [National] Authority? Or is it best to try and open up to Hamas early? The fact is that in order to give Mitchell time to explore the situation and draw up a clear strategy, it might be too early to talk with all the parties in the region”. Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, downplayed the impact of selecting Likud Party leader Binyamin Netanyahu to form the Israeli cabinet on the US efforts to pave the way for a peace conference in the region. Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Alterman said: “One of the controversial points is that in his efforts to promote himself before the right-wing in Israel, Labour Party leader Ehud Baraq was in the habit of saying, “Netanyahu gave up the land of the Israelis; I did not”. During his rule, Netanyahu showed a desire to move towards the peace process although he very much doubted the ability of the Palestinians to move towards peace. The problem with the Israeli leadership is that it doubts it can have peace with the Palestinians and the problem with Netanyahu is that he will more suspicious than others in the Israeli leadership. This makes the Israeli public opinion strongly doubt the prospects for peace and negotiations”.