Hillary Clinton ended her first Middle East tour as US Secretary of State with different perceptions from those she brought with her.
She offered reporters a surprising summing up Wednesday, March 4:
“There is a great deal of concern about Iran from this whole region,” she said. “It is clear Iran intends to interfere with the internal affairs of all these peoples and try to continue its efforts to fund other proxies, and not only Hamas or Hizballah, for terrorism.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East sources report that Clinton arrived for talks in Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian Authority quite unprepared. The items she addressed showed that the advance briefings she received in Washington were outdated or simply wrong.
The heavy focus on Iran was one of the surprises she encountered wherever she went.
She also discovered at the Gaza Donors Conference at Sharm e-Sheikh Monday that the Palestinians were the last thing on the minds of the 80 or so delegations. It was not just a matter of waning interest. While most gave lip service to the American solution for the Israel-Palestinian conflict of two states living side by side in peace, few any longer believe in it.
Had the new Secretary of State realized what really exercised Middle East leaders, her entire trip would have been different in character and content.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly offers a quick roundup:
Riyadh is agog with rumors that King Abdullah has secretly convened the Allegiance Council whose function is to set the order of succession to the throne. This Council must choose the next king after Abdullah and the Crown Prince who follows him on the throne. This topic is urgent because the incumbent Crown Prince, Sultan, who is also defense minister, had surgery in the United States this week. He suffers from intestinal cancer. Although the procedure was successful, his medical advisers have ordered him to stay in the US because he is extremely frail.
Another topic of high interest in the Saudi capital is the impending visit by Syrian president Bashar Assad to mend the four-year long falling-out between him and the king.
The succession to the presidency is the overriding issue in Cairo too.
When Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak welcomed Clinton to Sharm e-Sheikh Monday, March 2, his son Gemal (Jimmy) Mubarak arrived in Washington. His father sent him over to introduce himself to heads of the Barak Obama administration and prepare Mubarak pere's first visit to the US in five years.
This action signaled an advanced stage in the transition of power in Cairo from father to son. US officials were given to understand that any business they wish to transact with Egypt should be settled with Gemal. Mubarak senior would arrive in April to affix his signature to the documents.
It signaled that the president prefers to settle matters with Obama's people in Washington – not Secretary Clinton in Egypt.
Cairo is also buzzing with the mystery of the hand behind the terrorist attack in Cairo's main bazaar on Feb. 23, in which a 17-year old French girl was killed and at least 23 others were injured, most of them tourists.
On March 1, a teacher from the American School in Alexandria was stabbed and slightly injured in the same area.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counter-terror sources, Egyptian security authorities in a top secret report have ascribed the attacks to an Iranian terrorist gang which they believe arrived in Cairo earlier this year. They report a previous attack in mid-February which was never published.
If they are right, then relations between Tehran and Cairo have sunk to an unprecedented low.
Large-scale Jordanian forces were strung along the kingdom's border with Syria on March 3, the day Hillary Clinton arrived in Israel. Their deployment was prompted by intelligence that Syrian security planned to send small terrorist teams into Jordan for attacks in Amman and other Jordanian towns.
An exchange of delegations between Syria and Jordan scheduled for this week was called off summarily. Our sources report that the two Arab neighbors are at loggerheads over Jordan's crackdown on Hamas, which has infuriated Damascus.
The talk of the moment in Beirut is the opening of the international tribunal at The Hague for prosecuting the murderers of Lebanese former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005. Lebanon is waiting to hear the names of the Lebanese judges who travelled secretly to Holland to take up seats on the tribunal and of the Lebanese and Syrian officials and officers to be subpoenaed to appear.
In Damascus too the Hariri tribunal is the leading topic of conversation, given the heavy cloud of suspicion hanging over the Assad regime. The issue of an arrest warrant by the International Court (ICC) against Sudanese president Omar Bashir Wednesday, March 4, jolted president Assad's nearest and dearest who fear they too will be summoned to answer suspicions of their complicity in the Hariri assassination.
In protest against Washington's role in establishing the tribunal, Syrian officials indicated to Clinton that the envoys she planned to send to Damascus – US Deputy Assistant Secretary for near Eastern Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman and National Security Council officer, Daniel Shapiro – would not be welcome.
The Secretary of State found Israelis deeply immersed in two subjects: the financial crisis overtaking the country and deepening unemployment and the names of the foreign, defense and justice ministers in the government coalition whom Binyamin Netanyahu proposes to appoint to his government.
Hillary Clinton's visit was termed a formality.