U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Monday that Israel cannot "just sit and take rockets" from Gaza terrorizing its citizens as she stressed the Obama administration's commitment to finding a peaceful existence for Israelis and Palestinians.
On her first foray into Middle East diplomacy, Clinton used an international donors conference to issue a blunt call for urgent action to forge a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. She also signaled a possible warming in U.S. relations with Syria after several years of division.
With the Obama administration's Mideast peace envoy, George Mitchell, seated behind her at a conference meant to raise billions to help the Gaza Strip recover from its recent war with Israel, Clinton said President Barack Obama would continue the Bush administration's focus on seeking a two-state solution that involves Israel and a sovereign Palestinian state coexisting in peace.
She made it clear, however, that Mideast leaders could count on Obama to take a more active approach than did his predecessor, George W. Bush.
"It is time to look ahead," she said, with an eye on the human aspects of what years of regional conflict have meant for the Palestinians and others.
"The United States is committed to a comprehensive peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and we will pursue it on many fronts," she said.
The former New York senator and one-time first lady told the gathering: "I have to confess I am troubled by the continuing rocket attacks coming out of Gaza." She added that Israel cannot "just sit and take rockets falling on its people."
The Sharm el-Sheik conference was called in the aftermath of the Gaza crisis, which remains in danger of heating up. Israel ended its air and ground assault meant to halt rocket fire coming from Gaza about six weeks ago with a shaky cease-fire by both sides. Some 1,300 Palestinians — at least half of them civilians — and 13 Israelis died in the three-week offensive, officials have said.
Militants have continued to fire rockets sporadically into southern Israel, triggering retaliatory airstrikes.
Asked if a peaceful settlement was possible by year's end, Clinton indicated that the process will take a long time.
"I personally am very committed to this. I know that it can be done. I believe that with all my heart," she said, avoiding any timetable.
In a sign of a possible warming of relations with Syria, Clinton also shook hands and spoke briefly with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem. They were not scheduled to meet but encountered each other during the daylong conference at this Red Sea resort, a U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Washington withdrew its ambassador from Damascus in 2005 to protest Syria's suspected role in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Damascus denied involvement in his death, but in the uproar that followed, it was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, ending a 29-year military presence.
Clinton declined to discuss the specifics of her discussion but said: "In consultation with our friends and allies, our partners, we are reaching out to determine what, if any, areas of cooperation and engagement are possible, and that includes with respect to Syria."
Clinton, who is scheduled to travel this week to Jerusalem to consult with Israeli government officials and to the West Bank to meet with Palestinian officials, said the United States was pledging $900 million to the international aid effort for the Gaza Strip. She gave no breakdown of the funds, but her spokesman, Robert Wood, said on Sunday that it included $300 million in humanitarian aid for Gaza and about $600 million in budget and development aid to the Palestinian Authority, which is based in the West Bank.
"We cannot afford more setbacks or delays — or regrets about what might have been, had different decisions been made," she said in apparent reference to the failure of previous peace initiatives, including those pushed vigorously by her husband's administration.
The Obama administration is casting its Gaza and Palestinian Authority contributions as a calculated effort to ensure that the money does not reach Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules Gaza and is viewed by Washington as a terrorist organization and not a legitimate governing body.
Clinton conducted a rapid-fire series of one-on-one meetings with Arab and other counterparts attending the conference. In an afternoon session with the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, she expressed doubt that Iran would respond to Obama administration diplomatic overtures, according to a U.S. official who was present in the meeting. The official described the exchange for reporters on condition of anonymity because the session was private.
Clinton told her counterpart that the Obama administration is carefully calculating its moves and will consult fully with Persian Gulf allies.
"We're under no illusions," the official quoted Clinton as telling al Nahyan. "Our eyes are wide open on Iran."
The U.S. official told The AP that Clinton's statement did not reflect a change in her view of the likely outcome of efforts to engage Iran. The Bush administration refused to deal with Iran unless it first halted its uranium enrichment program, which Iran insists is strictly for peaceful nuclear energy but that the United States and other countries believe is a step toward building an arsenal of nuclear weapons.
On Sunday in Washington, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a broadcast interview that Iran has sufficient fissile material for a nuclear weapon and warned of a dire outcome if Tehran moves forward with building a bomb.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran has processed 2,222 pounds of low-enriched uranium. But the report left unclear whether Iran is now capable, even if it wanted, of further enriching that material to the much higher degree needed to build a warhead.
On Monday, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hasan Qashqavi told reporters in Tehran, "We have said many times that a nuclear weapon has no place in Iran's defense doctrine."