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Clinton to visit Mideast, reconnect with Europeans

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[February 28, 2009]  WASHINGTON (AP) -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is using her second overseas trip as the nation's top diplomat to assess peace prospects in the Middle East, reconnect with European allies and remind her Russian counterpart that U.S. efforts to rebuild relations with Moscow has its limits.

The former first lady and former U.S. senator from New York is kicking off a weeklong journey by attending an international conference in Egypt where she will announce on Monday a U.S. government pledge of up to $900 million in humanitarian assistance for the rebuilding of the war-shaken Gaza Strip.

RestaurantThe Palestinians are seeking $2.8 billion dollars for Gaza. A key complication is that the United States does not recognize the Hamas movement that rules Gaza and will not allow aid money to flow through Hamas.

The pledge conference for Gaza 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 key Palestinian faction, Fatah, which takes a more moderate approach to Israel.

Clinton also will visit Israel to underscore President Barack Obama's commitment to finding a "two-state solution" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that establishes a sovereign Palestinian state at peace with Israel.

After its 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.

Clinton also will venture into 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 the Pacific Rim of Asia, Clinton is going to the Middle East and to Europe to try to build on what the Obama administration believes is early enthusiasm in those regions for changing the dynamic of relations with America after years of disconnect on many key issues.

Daniel Fried, the assistant secretary of state for European affairs, said Friday the main theme of Clinton's visit to Brussels, Belgium, on Thursday will be "the reconnection of the United States to Europe and a sense of consolidating some of the enormous political goodwill 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, who 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 Geneva meeting to focus on arms control. That was an issue of great frustration for the Russians during the administration of former President George W. Bush, which 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.

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Clinton has said the Obama 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 Obama 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 Obama 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 like the former Soviet republic of Georgia, where Russian troops fought a brief war last summer, and in opposing the NATO membership aspirations of countries like Ukraine, which also is 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 is scheduled to wind up her trip with a stop in Ankara, Turkey, to discuss a range of topics with senior Turkish government officials, including the Obama review of its strategy for the war 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.


On the Net:

State Department: http://www.state.gov

[Associated Press; By ROBERT BURNS]

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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