Palestinian boys looking through the holes of a bombed building. (Photo: Mahmud Hams / Getty Images)
Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in the Middle East on Sunday, delving into Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking for the first time at an international donors conference for Gaza.
The United States is expected to pledge more than $900 million at Monday's one-day conference in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. The funds are aimed at post-conflict recovery in Gaza after Israel's military offensive in December.
Washington also wants the money to bolster Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and has stipulated no U.S. funds will go through the militant group Hamas, which rules Gaza while Abbas' Fatah movement runs the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
"I will be announcing a commitment to a significant aid package, but it will only be spent if we determine that our goals can be furthered rather than undermined or subverted," Clinton told Voice of America in an interview taped on Friday. She did not speak to reporters during the flight to Egypt.
"All the pledges of aid this conference is expected to produce will be worth next to nothing if the donors do not demand that Israel open the borders to commercial goods as well as humanitarian essentials," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.
After the conference in Egypt, where she will also meet European and Arab leaders, Clinton travels to Jerusalem to see Israeli politicians trying to cobble together a new government after February elections.
Palestinians are also trying to form a government.
Tough Time for Peacemaking
"There is not a lot of pressure that can be applied at a time when there is a government still in formation," said Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank.
Clinton plans to meet Benjamin Netanyahu, the hawkish Israeli prime minister-designate who on Saturday abandoned efforts to form a broad coalition government with centrist Tzipi Livni, who has been involved in U.S.-brokered peace talks.
Livni has accused Netanyahu of insufficient commitment to the talks, and her decision not to form a government weakens Clinton's effort to kick-start the peace process her husband, former President Bill Clinton, failed to deliver on.
Silvan Shalom, a Netanyahu ally, told Reuters the Likud leader would engage in dialogue with the Palestinians but would not agree in advance to the two-state solution advocated by the international powers since the Oslo accords of 1993.
"This is a sensitive time in Israeli politics as they seek to form a government, but I will take the opportunity to reaffirm the strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship and talk about the best way to move peace forward," said Clinton.
Palestinian groups are taking part in Egyptian-mediated reconciliation talks. Clinton, who will travel to the West Bank, said the United States could only accept Hamas in a unity government if it met three conditions.
Those are to recognize Israel, sign on to previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements and renounce violence - conditions Hamas has refused to accept.
"Otherwise, I don't think it will result in the kind of positive step forward either for the Palestinian people or as a vehicle for a reinvigorated effort to obtain peace that leads to a Palestinian state," Clinton said.
After meeting Abbas in his West Bank office and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Clinton will travel to Brussels to see NATO foreign ministers.
In a bid to improve poor U.S. ties with Moscow under the Bush administration, Clinton plans to have dinner with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva before finishing up her weeklong trip with a stop in Turkey on Saturday.
Editing by Jon Boyle.