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Mideast weighs the Clinton prospect

Nearly a month after Barack Obama’s election, his reported decision to nominate Hillary Rodham Clinton for secretary of State is causing Arabs and Israelis to readjust expectations of his administration’s policies toward the Middle East.

During the campaign, Obama carried the hopes of many Arabs for a new brand of diplomacy more open to their views, one that would revive America’s power and prestige in the region and end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israelis viewed Obama as a less reliable friend than John McCain, his Republican rival, or Clinton, who touted a deep affinity for the Jewish state in her bid for the Democratic nomination.

Cautiously, Israelis are now applauding Clinton’s all-but-certain nomination as a sign that Obama can be trusted to act firmly against Iran’s nuclear ambitions and to refrain from pressing Israel to accept a weak, violence-prone Palestinian state on its borders.

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Arabs and especially Palestinians, on the other hand, say the news has damped their optimism that Obama will veer from the Bush administration’s hawkish policies and from what they call America’s long-standing pro-Israel tilt.

“I was frankly surprised by this choice,” said Manar Shorbagy, an expert on American foreign policy who teaches at the American University in Cairo. “Obama’s talking about bringing diplomacy back to a U.S. foreign policy that has been militarized under President Bush. Sen. Clinton has different ideas. She voted for the Iraq war and has supported many things Bush has done in his two terms.”

The Palestinian Authority, which is engaged in a U.S.-backed effort to negotiate peace with Israel, has refrained from such criticism. “The peace process is a bipartisan issue in American politics,” said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. “We hope that Madame Clinton will continue the effort to achieve a two-state solution.”

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said there would be no official comment before Obama announces his choice, expected to come today at a news conference in Chicago.

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Clinton is widely viewed in the region as a likely heir to President Clinton’s unfinished Middle East business: the all-out push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal that eluded his administration. Those efforts were resumed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice only in the last two years.

But analysts on both sides say it’s unclear how much responsibility or leeway Obama would give Clinton to conduct Middle East policy. They note that other officials, including Vice President-elect Joe Biden, who has extensive foreign policy experience, and Gen. James L. Jones Jr., whom Obama is expected to name today as his choice for national security advisor, might also weigh heavily in decisions about the region after the administration takes office in January.

Because Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq pose more immediate problems, it is also uncertain how swiftly the administration will pursue an Israeli-Palestinian accord, a goal often portrayed as the key to peace in a region where that conflict is used as justification for militancy. The talks are bogged down in differences over borders, Palestinian refugees and rival claims to Jerusalem.

Criticism of Obama

Nonetheless, Clinton’s long record of public pronouncements on the Middle East is being studied across the region for clues about America’s diplomatic direction here.

As first lady and as New York’s junior senator, she has taken positions, some at odds with Obama’s, that appeal to Israelis and Jewish voters at home. She was an early advocate of the barrier separating Israel from the West Bank (Obama has yet to voice support for it) and of Jerusalem as the “eternal and indivisible capital of Israel.”

Like Obama, she has said the United States should not negotiate with Hamas, the Iranian-backed militant group that runs the Gaza Strip. During the primary campaign she criticized Obama’s willingness to negotiate with Iran and declared that the United States could “obliterate” Iran if it launched a nuclear attack on Israel.

“Her friendship and support of the Jewish people and Israel is second to none,” said Danny Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States.

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The Arab world sees two Hillary Clintons: one, the first lady who famously got ahead of U.S. policy a decade ago by advocating Palestinian statehood and remains at least verbally wedded to the goal of a U.S.-brokered peace deal; the other, a politician with lingering presidential ambitions and a BlackBerry that holds too many pro-Israeli connections.

“My impression is that before agreeing to take the job, she fought quite hard for a real role in formulating American policy,” said Mouin Rabbani, an independent analyst based in Amman, Jordan. “But she’ll be acting with at least one eye on her own political future. It’s not all that difficult to imagine her on issues like Iran and Israel staking out positions that could be used for a future election campaign.”

Speculation about Clinton’s views may be beside the point, some experts contend. “It really doesn’t matter,” said Aaron David Miller, who has advised six secretaries of State on Middle East issues and is now a public policy specialist at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “She’s no longer her own actor in this. . . . She’ll need to be empowered by the president.”

Even so, Israelis say they’re more comfortable about Obama with Clinton on the team, an added reassurance after the appointment of Rahm Emanuel, a Jew whose father once had links to a militant Zionist organization, as White House chief of staff.

“Israel would get a fair hearing with her,” said Israeli historian Michael Oren, as Obama plots diplomatic overtures to Iran and decides how hard to press for concessions to the Palestinians.

After a year of fruitless talks brokered by the Bush administration, Israelis are in no mood to be pushed into a deal with the Palestinian Authority while its leadership is in disarray and Hamas militants rule Gaza. The front-runner in Israel’s Feb. 10 election, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the right-wing Likud Party, opposes continuing the peace talks.

Realism expected

Although Obama has promised Palestinian leaders that he will strive for an accord, the question is how much effort he or Clinton would invest.

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“There’s not likely to be coercion in the [U.S.-Israeli] relationship,” said Eran Lerman, who directs the Israel office of the American Jewish Committee. “I think Hillary would be fairly realistic as to what can be done and what cannot be done given the political climate on our side and on the Palestinian side.”

Ali Jarbawi, an independent West Bank political scientist who advises the Palestinian leadership, shares that assessment.

“We need a new American vision, an evenhandedness in dealing with the conflict,” he said. “The Arab world is practically begging for an end to the conflict and Israel is saying no. Is Clinton prepared to push Israel? I’m skeptical.”

Some analysts predict the Obama administration will try instead to broker an Israeli-Syrian accord, aimed at drawing Syria away from Iran’s influence and diminishing Iran as a threat to the Jewish state.

Watching Rice

Edward S. Walker Jr., who was assistant secretary of State for Near East affairs during the Clinton administration, said even if Obama gives Hillary Clinton wide leeway over Israeli-Arab issues, “she may not want to put all of her eggs in that basket. Most administrations don’t like to follow too closely in the exact footsteps of their predecessors.”

“Hillary Clinton has watched Condi Rice make 23 visits to the region over the past two years and achieve nothing,” said Oren, the Israeli historian. “She is going to think many times before investing personally in a process where a very good chance of success is not guaranteed.”

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Boudreaux, Fleishman and Richter are Times staff writers.

Richard Boudreaux

reporting from jerusalem

Jeffrey Fleishman

reporting from cairo

Paul Richter

reporting from washington

boudreaux@latimes.com

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

paul.richter@latimes.com

Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.


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