JERUSALEM —With Egypt unsettled, Syria in crisis and Iran’s nuclear program raising widespread fears, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton conferred with Israeli leaders here Monday to reaffirm U.S. ties and allay anxieties about the rapidly changing dynamics in the region.
In her first trip to Israel since 2010 and probably her last as secretary of state, Clinton met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to talk about a range of issues, the most pressing of which was probably Iran’s nuclear program.
The discussions also touched on the dangers of the escalating civil war in neighboring Syria and other changes ushered in by last year’s Arab Spring uprisings.
“We’re living in a time of unprecedented change, a lot of challenges for us both,” Clinton said before a dinner with Netanyahu. “And we will continue to consult closely . . . to chart the best way forward for peace and stability for Israel, the United States, the region and the world.”
At a news conference after the meeting, Clinton said that she and the prime minister had continued “a very long, in-depth, ongoing consultation” about Iran. “We know the sanctions are biting, and we talked about concrete steps we could take to keep building the pressure,” she said.
She didn’t specify what those steps might be, adding that the United States would prefer a diplomatic solution but would “use all elements of American power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Israel’s most hawkish voices on the issue, have said that sanctions and diplomacy are only giving Iran more time to build a bomb, and they have expressed little confidence in President Obama’s promise to keep that from happening.
Netanyahu and Barak have said Israel reserves all options to thwart a nuclear Iran, including a possible independent Israeli attack on that country’s nuclear sites. Though the hard-line narrative has cooled in recent months, the stumbling international talks with Iran have revived speculation about a preemptive Israeli strike — which, if it occurred in the coming months, could pull Obama into a new Middle East conflict as he campaigns for reelection.
Before arriving in Israel, Clinton met with Egypt’s new Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi. She said Monday that her message to Morsi and Netanyahu was the same: The United States is looking to Egypt’s new leaders to play a constructive role in advancing regional peace and security, particularly by upholding the peace treaty with Israel.
In comments before the meeting, Netanyahu said that Egypt “has been an anchor of peace” in maintaining a 1979 peace treaty stemming from the Camp David accords and that Israeli leaders are concerned about its future under an Islamist government.
Clinton also held talks with Barak, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and President Shimon Peres, and with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
In a statement after their meeting, Peres stressed the importance of maintaining Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt and denounced the violence in Syria.
In prepared remarks after meeting Peres, Clinton alluded to a “moment of great change and transformation for the region.” It was a moment perhaps best symbolized by her raucous send-off Sunday in Egypt, where she became the target of protests.
At her last stop in the port city of Alexandria for the reopening of the U.S. Consulate there, several hundred protesters waving shoes and shouting “Monica! Monica!” pelted Clinton’s departing motorcade with fruit and footwear. The taunts referred to the scandal that Clinton endured as first lady in the mid-1990s when her husband, President Bill Clinton, had an affair with a young intern, Monica Lewinsky. Throwing shoes is a demeaning insult in the Arab world; in 2008, President George W. Bush famously dodged shoes hurled at him by an Iraqi journalist at a Baghdad news conference.
It was not clear exactly who the demonstrators were. But Clinton’s arrival at the Four Seasons Hotel in Cairo on Saturday had been greeted by several thousand shouting protesters, including many supporters of ousted president Hosni Mubarak.
With rumors and fears filling the vacuum of political uncertainty across Egypt, many of the protesters believe that the United States, which backed Mubarak for decades, is now orchestrating the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In her remarks Monday, Clinton played down the protests. “I was not offended — I was, you know, relieved that nobody was hurt, and I felt bad that the tomatoes were wasted,” she said.
Clinton and Netanyahu also discussed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which has stalled despite being a high priority of the Obama administration. Clinton said she reiterated to Netanyahu and Fayyad the need for direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
“The international community can help,” she said. “But it is up to the parties to do the hard work for peace.”
Clinton’s stop in Jerusalem is the last in one of her longest trips as secretary of state, a journey that began July 5 and has focused mostly on the Obama administration’s policy “pivot” to Asia, with stops in Japan, Mongolia, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
The Obama administration has had a fraught relationship with some Israeli leaders, and Clinton’s trip to Jerusalem comes two weeks before Republican contender Mitt Romney is scheduled to visit.
Karin Brulliard contributed to this report.