Hillary in the Middle East

In laying out the Obama administration's Mideast strategy on her first trip to the region, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made clear that Washington will deal ever so warmly and gently with Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, while leaning on Israel to do the heavy lifting in the peace process and offering more accommodation to the PA's needs.

Because make no mistake, in putting formation of a Palestinian state at the top of her priority list, Clinton put her chips, first and foremost, on the PA and only secondarily on Israel's security interests.

The tone of her remarks in Ramallah was strikingly different from her public comments in Jerusalem and at the Gaza-donors conferance in Egypt.   In Ramallah, she showered Abbas and his prime minister with unallyoyed praise.  To listen to her, one would think that the PA already has proven itself ready, able and fully qualified to run a Palestinian state.  There was not one whisper of concern that Abbas continues to glorify suicide bombers, stokes anti-Israel incitement in PA media and schools,  and refuses to make any concessions whatsoever toward a two-state solution, especially on refugees.

It's as if Abbas already has met all conditions for Palestinian statehood, and it's only up to Israel to do more.

Clinton's apparent calculation is that given their political fragility, Abbas and the PA need at all costs to be paraded on the world stage as peaceful paragons of virtuous statecraft.  It's because Clinton seems to realize how weak Abbas really is that she feels the need to overcompensate with hundreds of millions of dollars more of U.S. aid and blindness and/or forgiveness for his shortcomings and transgressions.

As one observer once noted, Abbas's strength lies in his weakness -- at least in shaping American diplomacy.

Conversely, when it comes to Israel, its very strength becomes a liability in HIllary's agenda.  Israel, she feels, is strong enough so it's fair game to low-ball its security interests and continued Hamas aggression from Gaza, while exerting pressure for more substantive concessions from Jerusalem, including wider opening of Gaza border crossings that Israel fears would become transit points for more military hardware for Hamas's arsenal.

While in Egypt and Jerusalem, Clinton noted in passing that Hamas is complicating matters by continuing to rain rockets on Israeli towns.  But it was a gentle rebuke -- with no consequences.  Continued Hamas rocket fire certainly didn't slow her down in pledging $300 million in U.S. aid for Gaza reconstruction, which notwithstanding administration assurances of funneling the money through other parties, is bound to play into Hamas's hands to Israel's detriment.

The most obvious example of Clinton's double-standard diplomacy came when she felt no compunction in sharply criticising Israel over planned demolition of un-licensed Arab homes in East Jerusalem as a breach of the "road map" -- a U.S. document fashioned in Bush's first term that calls for gradual, reciprocal steps toward a permanent peace deal.  While invoking the "road map" to bash Israel, there wasn't a murmum from Clinton that the same "road map" also demands dismantling of Palestinian terrorist groups as a pre-requisite for substantive peace talks.

In Jerusalem, Clinton went through all the PR-obliatory gestures -- a visit to Yad Vashem, a love-in with Shimon Peres and a warm reunion with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.  But symbols aside, she offered no assurances that Washington will put Israel and the Palestinians under the same rigorous scrunity when it comes to their respective "road map" obligations.

To be fair, Clinton was in Jerusalem during a time of political transition.  Olmert is on his way out and Bibi Netanyahu still works at fashioning a new government.  Protocol dictated that Clinton not engage in serious policy talks with Bibi before he takes over the reins.  So Hillary was careful not to jump the gun. And exactly how much pressure she will exert on a Netanyahu government remains to be seen.

But in her public comments, she already put Bibi on notice that the U.S. will press as its highest priority formation of a Palestinian state and demand that Israel focus on that objective as the first and last order of business.

This is not even-handed diplomacy.  This is the diplomatic equivalent of affirmative action -- with the scales weighted heavier on one side at the expense of the other.