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Europe

Clinton Hopes to Boost Ties With Europe, Mideast

Hillary Clinton heads to Europe and the Middle East next week on her first visit as US secretary of state in an attempt to strengthen relations with America's allies after tensions with the Bush administration.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

Secretary of State Clinton aims to reconnect with America's allies

Traveling to both regions for the first time as America's top diplomat, the former first lady is to explore ways to secure peace in the Middle East and reinforce ties with European allies in keeping with a new spirit of global cooperation promised by President Barack Obama.

"There is an overarching theme to the trip to Brussels which is the reconnection of the United States with Europe and really a sense of consolidating this enormous political goodwill on both sides of the Atlantic and harnessing it to a common agenda," US Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Daniel Fried said on Friday.

The Bush administration had a strained relationship with some European allies in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. But Obama's election was warmly welcomed in European capitals.

Clinton at Gaza donors' conference

Clinton will begin her visit in the Middle East on Monday where she is to attend a donors' conference aimed at rebuilding the Gaza Strip. The conference will be held at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. She is also to visit Israel and the Palestinian territories before heading to Europe.

European leaders want Washington to pressure Israel to improve aid distribution to the Gaza Strip which has been hit hard by Israeli blockades.

Graphic of Barack Obama against the backdrop of the American flag and a map of the Middle East

Clinton is building on President Obama's message of consulting and listening to America's allies

"We would like the Israelis to go further," European External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said on Friday after a visit to the Hamas-run Gaza Strip by Europe's top diplomat Javier Solana.

The United States is reportedly mulling a $900-million aid package to rebuild Gaza but Clinton said Friday the aid would depend on how well the Palestinians meet the conditions set by the diplomatic quartet consisting of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.

With Arab backing, the quartet has laid out three conditions that any Palestinian partners in peace talks with Israel must meet: renouncing violence, recognizing Israel and abiding by previous agreements.

"I will be announcing a commitment to a significant aid package, but it will only be spent if we determine that our goals can be furthered rather than undermined or subverted," Clinton told Voice of America radio ahead of her visit.

Political uncertainty complicates task in Middle East

Clinton is expected to face a tough task as she embarks on her first fact-finding mission to the Middle East. Her visit comes at an awkward time in the region.

Israeli elections earlier this month provided no clear-cut winner, leaving Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to preside over a caretaker government, while Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the conservative Likud party, tries to form a ruling coalition.

At the same time, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is still struggling to form a unity government, further dimming hope for any tangible progress on the tattered Middle East peace process.

Western-backed secular party Fatah and its militant Palestinian Islamist rival Hamas agreed Thursday to work together to form a unity government to end factional feuding, but Clinton said the Egyptian-sponsored talks would only yield results if Hamas agrees to abide by the quartet's conditions.

"I believe that it's important, if there is some reconciliation and a move toward a unified authority, that it's very clear that Hamas knows the conditions that have been set forth by the quartet, by the Arab summit," she said.

US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman said on Friday that Clinton will meet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, President Shimon Peres, diplomatic chief Tzipi Livni and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

The peace process will be discussed during several bilateral meetings on the margins of the Sharm el-Sheikh conference, Feltman said, adding that Clinton would also meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Clinton plans face-to-face meeting with Lavrov

On Thursday in Brussels, Clinton is scheduled to meet her NATO counterparts and join them at an informal dinner, along with Swiss officials.

Clinton will also meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for the first time.

The meeting would use "the opportunity of a new American administration to capitalize on the many areas where the US and Russia have common interests and can work in a common fashion, particularly on arms control," Fried said.

Clinton will wrap up her visit with a stop in Turkey where she is to meet President Abdullah Gul, and Foreign Minister Ali Babacan.

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