Hilary Clinton: the search for Israeli-Palestinian peace is "never-ending". Bernard Kouchner: France is "very anxious about the situation of the people of Gaza".

Here are excerpts from remarks made by U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton and visiting French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner after their meeting in Washington on Thursday 5 February

Clinton: “We will continue to coordinate closely in the Middle East and cooperate on Gaza, humanitarian aid, and the never-ending pursuit of a just and secure peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians”.

Kouchner: the talks were “mainly on Middle East”

Then Kouchner (but not Clinton), mentioned Gaza:
“[W]e are really very anxious about the situation of the people of Gaza, and we were in agreement together with Madame Secretary of State to make pressure on both side to open the crossing. The Gaza people, they need so-called humanitarian assistance. And we’ll do it together another time, even if this is difficult, because we are facing – all of us – the electoral process in Israel and the idea – very important idea of Abu Mazen, the president of the PLO, the Palestinian Authority, to set up – to try to set up a government of national unity. And we are, of course, supporting Abu Mazen, and we must strengthen him, but it will take some time. Meanwhile, we must access to the people – we must accede to the people – sorry. For the rest, we were at complete agreement to support the Egyptian initiative, and you know that some talks are now – have been developed in Cairo in between the Hamas delegation, the PLO delegation, and we are waiting for the result of that with a very great support to the Egyptian. And there is a meeting in the – I think the – yes, the 2nd [n.b. I think he must have said 22nd] day of February [or maybe he meant the 2nd of March?], yes, in Cairo, and I hope we’ll get better support to Gaza people before this date

In response to a question about Hamas from a journalist:
Kouchner: “Hmm. (Laughter.) Okay. Well, Hamas, you know, we said several times we have no official talk with Hamas. It is, for the time being, impossible. Why? Of course, we have indirect talk in supporting the Egyptian initiative. We were obliged to go through – I mean, the Turks, and the Norwegian people, the Russian, et cetera. And of course, the Egyptian, mainly the Egyptian, because they are talking to Hamas. Why aren’t we talking officially to Hamas? Because they are not part of the peace process. And we’ll certainly talk to them when they would start to talk to the Palestinian themself, to PLO, and certainly, when they would accept the peace process, the signatures of PLO on the Israeli-Palestinian documents and mainly the Arab initiative of peace. That’s the answer. But certainly, this is part — and Tony Blair was right in saying so. In Gaza, if you are not setting up a sort of common task force to get access to the people or this government of national unity, it will be difficult, I know – we know that.

Clinton: “And I would only add that our conditions respecting Hamas are very clear: We will not in any way negotiate with or recognize Hamas until they renounce violence, recognize Israel, and agree to abide by, as the foreign minister said, the prior agreements entered into by the PLO and the Palestinian Authority” …

Daniel Levy: U.S. remains an indispensable player in Middle East

Daniel Levy recently wrote from Washington (in what is, unsurprisingly yet still dissapointingly, a rather American-based view of the world): “When President Obama turns to the Middle East, he will discover a region in which America’s credibility and standing have been painfully sapped. This is a result of not only war, but also of perceived American indifference to legitimate regional grievances, most notably the Palestinian issue … Into this fray will enter an America that is stretched both economically and militarily. It is also an America that has limited the number of actors, including key actors, with whom it is engaging in the region. The Bush administration frequently indulged in self-marginalization … Yet the US remains an indispensable player. The efforts of others at mediation in the absence of American support or follow-up, more often than not, will fall short. This was the experience in Lebanon 2006, and on the issues of Iran, the Israel–Syria peace talks, Palestinian division and elsewhere, and is playing out in Gaza as these words are written. To restabilize the Middle East, achieve a new equilibrium and advance the peace process, America will very much be needed at the table, and often in a leading role. Against this gloomy backdrop, there are at least two pieces of good news for the incoming US president. Firstly, there is an increasing consensus within the US regarding the failures of Bush Middle East policies and the need to chart a new course. Crucially, this includes an acknowledgement that a restabilized Middle East and an effective peace process are important American national security interests … Secondly, the Middle East is ready to look again at an America led by Barack Hussein Obama, and eager to turn a new page. The hope that is manifest in so much of the world, a world that is not anti-American but has been concerned by American policies, has not passed the Middle East by. President Obama is popular and has a new opportunity. It should not be squandered”…

He then makes some suggestions (that, while they are clearly intended to be balanced, still take too much an Israeli-centered view of the world):
1.) “Take a long, hard look at why Annapolis failed to deliver”. YES. It does require a serious policy re-think (but not one limited only to the questions Daniel asks in his piece)…
2.) Find a new vocabulary, if not an entirely new language — that would articulate “genuine and convincing understanding for the Palestinian predicament”: YES.
3a.) Undertake “a round of frank discussions with its allies in the region and beyond. Friends in the Arab world will need to be told that America is now in the business of calming and resolving, rather than exacerbating, regional tensions”: YES.
3b.) But, Daniel writes: “A similar conversation should take place with Israel, its main predicate being that the US is interested in a peace outcome more than a peace process … while making clear that it wants to get this done, to see de-occupation and Palestinian statehood”. YES, so far so good. However, I disagree with Levy’s subsequent insistence here, which actually runs throughout the piece, that the U.S. must “walk in lockstep with Israel on all of its key legitimate concerns (on security, finality of borders and their recognition/legitimacy): NO. What, on ALL Israel’s key security concerns? NO, this is neither fair, nor is it in America’s interest. The U.S. cannot agree, for example, that Israel can dictate and impose all its concerns — including retention of all the settlements it wants; or that the awful checkpoints are necessary for anybody’s security (or even that they have worked so far); or that the awful Wall can stand. [One Israeli media source recently said that it would only take 30 days to completely tear it down — but this appears to be a fantasy.] The U.S. cannot agree that a future Palestinian state should be delayed any longer, or that it should be totally demilitarized, except for a Palestinian security force that acts only as a sub-contractor for Israeli security concerns. Palestinian security concerns must also be addressed, very concretely. And a future Palestinian democracy must not be smothered in an utterly misguided and terribly heavy-handed attempt to address only Israel’s security concerns as presently formulated, meaning a need to be in total control.

Then, Daniel Levy goes on — or veers off — into areas that are probably closer to what Washington policy-makers are musing on, but that might be less immediately productive, such as urging the U.S. to impose its own solution (based on U.S. interests!), and bringing in probably-unchewable issues of Lebanon, Syria and Iran.

Finally, Daniel writes: “The Bush administration connected the Middle East dots in a way that left a very ugly mess. The Obama administration does not have the luxury of a blank page, a clean slate. But it does have a new opportunity, and that is a rare and precious thing that if thoughtfully nurtured can indeed help create a livable equilibrium in this most troubled of regions”.

This analysis can be read in full here .