Clinton’s Mideast talks don’t include Hamas leaders

November 20, 2012

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is traveling to the Middle East on Tuesday to meet with officials in Israel, the West Bank and Egypt to discuss ongoing violence in Gaza, White House officials said.

Clinton will not meet with Hamas, which the United States does not recognize diplomatically, but rather with leaders of the Palestinian Authority, the officials said. Clinton cut short her stay in Phnom Penh, where she is taking part in the East Asia Summit with President Obama, and headed for hastily arranged meetings with leaders in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Cairo.

She will “emphasize the United States’ interest in a peaceful outcome that protects and enhances Israel’s security and regional stability,” said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.

Rhodes added that the United States wants “an outcome that can lead to improved conditions for the civilian residents of Gaza and can reopen the aspirations of the Palestinians and Israelis toward two states living side by side in peace and security. And she’ll continue to express our concern about the loss of civilian life on both sides.”

Hours before Clinton was due to arrive in Israel, police and ambulances were called to the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv after a man armed with a knife and an ax attacked a guard around 11:30 a.m., Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.

The guard, stationed at the seaside entrance of the embassy was “lightly injured,” the spokesman said. The guard shot “warning shots,” Rosenfeld said, but no one else was wounded. “He is now being questioned,” he said. “We are questioning him about what his motives were.”

Obama left Washington on Saturday for a four-day trip to Asia, which concludes Tuesday. The trip has been partly overshadowed by the fighting in Gaza.

The Obama administration has been pressuring the Egyptians to help broker a truce. The United States would support an agreement only if it includes an end to the firing of rockets into Israeli territory, Rhodes said. During a news conference in Bangkok on Sunday, Obama said his administration supports Israel’s right to defend itself against attacks on its soil.

“There’s no country on Earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders,” Obama said. “So we are fully supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself from missiles landing on people’s homes and workplaces and potentially killing civilians. And we will continue to support Israel’s right to defend itself.”

Obama has been trying to reorient American foreign policy from the greater Middle East, where more than a decade of war has dominated the country’s diplomatic and military resources, to the growing powers of Asia.

At nearly every stop on a three-nation Asia tour, though, Obama has been reminded that the Middle East is likely to remain the most demanding region — requiring the most diplomatic attention and holding the most immediate peril for the United States and its allies — for the rest of his time in office. Obama has reached out repeatedly by phone to the leaders of Israel, Turkey and Egypt seeking ways to resolve the Gaza conflict.

He also enlisted Clinton to call her counterparts in Qatar, France and Turkey. She and national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon briefed Obama on Monday at the U.S. Embassy in Burma.

In a briefing for reporters traveling with the president in Phnom Penh, Rhodes said that “any solution to this challenge has to include an end to this rocket fire. We all agree the best way to solve this is through diplomacy so you have a peaceful settlement.”

Asked what leverage Clinton brings, Rhodes said: “It’s not a matter of leverage. It’s a matter of what’s in everybody’s best interest.... It is not in the interest of the Palestinians and the people of Gaza for there to be an escalation of this conflict. That would bring with it a huge cost.”

Ernesto Londoño in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.

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