U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, arriving in Jerusalem from newly Islamist-controlled Egypt, told a wary Israel on Monday to treat the Arab Spring as an opportunity as well as a source of uncertainty convulsing the Middle East.
It was Clinton’s first visit to the Jewish state since U.S.-brokered peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis broke down in 2010 over Israel’s refusal to halt building of settlements on land where Palestinians hope to found a state.
Since then, popular revolts across the Arab world have swept away the rulers of Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Israel’s biggest neighbor Egypt, and unleashed a violent conflict in Syria.
Israel is particularly worried about the rise of Islamists in place of ousted Arab autocrats, especially Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who had guaranteed his country’s 1979 treaty with Israel, the first between Israel and an Arab country.
Clinton flew to Jerusalem and met Egypt’s President Shimon Peres, fresh from a visit to Egypt where she became the most senior U.S. official to meet newly elected President Mohamed Mursi, from the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood. Mursi told her Egypt would abide by its treaties.
“It is a time of uncertainty but also of opportunity. It is a chance to advance our shared goals of security, stability, peace and democracy,” she said in remarks to the press after talks with Peres focusing on Egypt, Syria, Iran's nuclear program and peace efforts with the Palestinians.
“It is in moments like these that friends like us have to think together, act together. We are called to be smart, creative and courageous,” she told Peres, adding she would discuss a “broad range of matters, including Egypt and Syria, peace efforts, Iran, other regional and global issues.”
At Clinton’s side, Peres spoke of the importance of maintaining the peace treaty with Egypt.
“I think that for the last thirty years the fact there was peace between us and Egypt saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of young people in Egypt and Israel and this is a worthwhile cause,” he said.
The long 22-month gap from Clinton’s last visit to Israel in part reflects the absence of progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace since talks between the two sides broke down in 2010.
U.S. President Barack Obama has had chilly relations with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Obama has yet to visit Israel as president, an issue that could cost him Jewish American votes in his Nov. 6 reelection bid this year.
Obama’s Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, has scheduled a visit at the end of the month, and regularly criticizes Obama for being insufficiently supportive of Israel.
The last two years have seen some tensions between Obama and the Netanyahu over how to respond to Iran, which both countries suspect of seeking nuclear weapons. Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful.
Both countries say they reserve the right to attack Iran to prevent it from obtaining nuclear arms, but Washington has leaned on Israel to be patient while newly-tightened economic sanctions have an impact and negotiations run their course.
Obama imposed much tighter sanctions this year on third countries that do business with Iran, and the European Union has imposed an embargo on Iranian oil that took effect on July 1.
Israel, widely thought to be the only country in the Middle East with a nuclear weapons capacity, has made clear it could strike Iran on its own if diplomacy fails.
“We have to do whatever we can to prevent Iran from endangering the freedom and independence of other people,” Peres said.
“The coalition you have built - and a coalition should have been built, it’s not a matter for one country - and the measures that you have taken, are beginning to have their impact,” he told Clinton in his public remarks.
Later in the day Clinton was to meet Netanyahu and Defenses Minister Ehud Barak. In Jerusalem she will also see Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad but not President Mahmoud Abbas, whom she met on July 6 in Paris.
U.S.-sponsored peace talks froze in 2010 after Netanyahu rejected Palestinian demands that he extend a partial freeze on settlement construction that he had introduced at Washington’s behest. Few diplomats expect any breakthrough ahead of the U.S. presidential election.