JERUSALEM — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised Tuesday to work with the incoming Israeli government, but delivered a clear message that could put her at odds with the country's next leader: Movement toward the establishment of a Palestinian state is "inescapable."
Clinton also said the U.S. would soon send two envoys to Syria. It was the most significant sign yet that the Obama administration is ready to mend relations with the Damascus regime. The U.S. withdrew its ambassador in 2005, accusing Syria of supporting terrorism.
"We have no way to predict what the future with our relations concerning Syria might be," Clinton said. "There has to be some perceived benefit of doing so for the United States and our allies and our shared values. But I think it is a worthwhile effort to go and begin these preliminary conversations."
In Damascus, the U.S. Embassy announced that Jeffrey Feltman, the State Department's top diplomat for the Middle East, would lead the American delegation headed to the Syrian capital.
The U.S. ambassador was pulled out by the Bush administration in 2005 to protest Syria's suspected role in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The United States has also criticized Syria for supporting militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah and has accused Syria of not doing enough to prevent foreign fighters from crossing into Iraq. Syria has said it is doing all it can to safeguard its long, porous border.
Clinton lamented that President Barack Obama's attempts to reach out to Syrian ally Iran have so far been unsuccessful. The U.S. and Israel accuse Iran of pursuing nuclear weapons and supporting anti-Israel militant groups.
Clinton, seeking to calm her Israeli hosts, said diplomacy should not be confused with softness.
"When we talk about engagement with Iran, do not be in any way confused, our goal remains the same: to dissuade and prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and continuing to fund terrorism," she said. "Whatever we do will be done thoughtfully in consultation with our friends and Israel, most particularly Israel."
Senior Israeli officials including Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Clinton that Israel does not oppose Washington's overtures to Iran. However, they said they were skeptical about Iran's intentions and urged the U.S. to set a deadline for Iran to respond positively. Israel fears Iran will use American engagement to buy time to develop nuclear weapons.
Asked about Netanyahu, Clinton acknowledged the possibility of disagreements with any Israeli government and made clear the U.S. would push forward with its efforts to forge a peace deal that includes the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
"The United States will be vigorously engaged in the pursuit of a two-state solution every step of the way," she said. "The inevitability of working toward a two state-solution is inescapable."
Prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposes Palestinian statehood and has been critical of peace talks, said after meeting Clinton in Jerusalem that the two had "found a common language."
While Netanyahu's hardline Likud party won one parliamentary seat less than Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's Kadima in last month's general election, neither came close to winning a majority.
Netanyahu, however, has broader support among lawmakers and is working to build a coalition of right-wing and Orthodox Jewish parties. He is expected to be sworn in as prime minister within weeks.
There were signs Tuesday that he could be backing off previous pledges to abandon the current round of peace talks with the Palestinians, launched in November 2007 at a U.S.-hosted summit.
"I think that Hillary Clinton...will find Benjamin Netanyahu prepared to continue to hold negotiations, not only on economic projects but also political negotiations, a political process," Likud lawmaker Silvan Shalom, a former foreign minister, said ahead of the meeting between the two.
Netanyahu was less explicit, but still conciliatory in tone when he spoke to journalists after his session with Clinton.
"The common goal is creative thinking to get out of the maze and try to create a new reality," he said. "There is a deep will on both our sides to work in cooperation."
Clinton signaled that an open quarrel with Israel was unlikely, stressing the close relationship between the two countries and saying Israel must ultimately decide what is in its best interests.
"We happen to believe that moving toward the two-state solution, step by step, is in Israel's best interests. But obviously it's up to the people and the government of Israel to decide how to define your interests," she said.
Several Netanyahu aides said his talks with Clinton focused on Iran and Gaza. The aides said Netanyahu asked that the U.S. set a deadline for Iran to respond to its diplomatic overtures, but he did not say what the U.S. should do if the deadline passes.
They spoke on condition of anonymity because they did not attend the meeting, but instead were briefed by Netanyahu.
Hamas officials reacted harshly to Clinton's criticism.
"We haven't seen anything good," said Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza. "She approves of occupation and its crimes and interferes in Palestinian internal affairs."
Clinton arrived in Jerusalem Monday evening from the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik, where she pledged $900 million in U.S. aid at an international donors conference for rebuilding the Gaza Strip after Israel's recent offensive against its Hamas rulers.