Mideast peace talks can secure Clinton’s legacy if she succeeds

By Mark Landler
New York Times / September 5, 2010

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WASHINGTON — For much of her tenure as secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton has been less an architect than an advocate for the Obama administration’s Middle East policy. With the resumption of direct talks last week, she now has no choice but to plunge into the rough and tumble of peacemaking.

Clinton will be in the thick of the negotiations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, when they meet on Sept. 14 in Egypt. Her role, several officials say, will be to take over from the administration’s special envoy, George J. Mitchell, when the two sides run into serious obstacles.

It may prove the greatest test yet for Clinton, one that could cement her legacy as a diplomat if she solves the riddle that foiled even her husband, President Clinton. But it could also pose considerable risks to any political ambitions she may harbor.

“I understand very well the disappointments of the past; I share them,’’ she said in convening the talks, in an allusion to Bill Clinton’s failed effort to broker a deal, most vividly at Camp David in 2000. Peace had seemed tantalizingly close but vanished amid recriminations in the Maryland mountains.

The tableau of Netanyahu and Abbas chatting amiably Thursday in front of the marble fireplace in her office, officials said, was testament to her relentless phone calls in recent weeks as she wore down the reluctance of the Palestinians to come to the table and drummed up support from Arab neighbors like Jordan and Egypt.

“One of the best indications that this could succeed is that Hillary Clinton is willing to get involved,’’ said Stephen J. Hadley, who served as national security adviser to President George W. Bush. “Because that makes me think two things: She thinks it’s possible and, because she is as skilled as she is, it increases the likelihood of success.’’

Among the many hurdles that Clinton will face is the often tense relationship that this administration has had with Israel. President Obama is viewed with distrust by many in Israel and among some Jewish groups at home, where his outreach to the Muslim world and public criticism of Israeli policies have been denounced by some critics as anti-Israel.

But Clinton has preserved her credibility among these groups, analysts said, which will make her perhaps the administration’s most effective salesperson for the peace process. She also has a politician’s feel for Netanyahu, her aides say, that could help her push him to make hard choices, provided she is willing.

The question, some Middle East experts asked, is whether Clinton has the negotiating grit to keep both men at the table — the combination of bluster, theatrics, hand-holding, and guile that secretaries of state, like Henry A. Kissinger and James A. Baker III, have deployed to forge agreements between Arabs and Israelis.

“She’s plenty tough, tougher than her husband,’’ said Aaron David Miller, who worked on peace negotiations in the Clinton administration. “But does she have a negotiator’s mindset? These are tough people in a tough neighborhood, who know how to manipulate people.’’

Early in her tenure, some questioned the scope of Clinton’s role after the appointment of highly visible special emissaries like Mitchell and Richard C. Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Clinton seems to have put those doubts to rest, though Mitchell will continue to manage the talks on a day-to-day basis.

Clinton got her first taste of high-wire negotiating last October in Zurich when she headed off a last-minute dispute that nearly scuttled an agreement between Turkey and Armenia on normalizing diplomatic relations.

Sitting in a limousine, she juggled two cellphones, slowly nudging two ancient enemies together, if only temporarily.

In June, at a hotel bar in Lima, she finalized a deal with a Chinese diplomat over which companies could be named in a UN resolution punishing Iran for its nuclear program.

But these are sideshows compared with the challenge of bringing together wary foes who have spent decades avoiding a deal. Even after what officials said was a promising start last week, no one in the administration knows if the talks will survive past Sept. 26, when Netanyahu has promised to allow a moratorium on settlement construction to expire and Abbas has threatened to walk out if it does.

For a US politician, the risks of delving into the Middle East are obvious. Clinton has taken arrows from American Jewish groups for her full-throated advocacy of Obama’s pressure on the Israeli government to freeze settlements.

“At the beginning of the administration, she was used as a foil; she was very tough on Israel,’’ said Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish advocacy organization.