JERUSALEM (Reuters) - 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 the 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 neighbour 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 met Israeli leaders in Jerusalem, 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.
At Clinton’s side, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Egypt “has been an anchor of peace and maintaining the peace treaty between us, I think, is something that is uppermost in both our minds.”
Clinton said before her talks with Netanyahu: “We are living in a time of unprecedented change with a lot of challenges for us both, and we will continue to consult closely, as we have on an almost daily basis, between our two governments, to chart the best way forward for peace and stability for Israel, the United States, the region and the world.”
Earlier she told President Shimon Peres that “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.”
“It is a time of uncertainty but also of opportunity. It is a chance to advance our shared goal of security, stability, peace and democracy along with prosperity for the millions of people in this region who have yet to see a better future,” Clinton said after meeting Peres.
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 Netanyahu, and Obama has yet to visit Israel as president, an issue that could cost him Jewish American votes in his November 6 reelection bid this year.
Obama’s Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, has scheduled a visit at the end of the month, and regularly criticises 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 programme 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.
As Clinton arrived in Jerusalem, Israeli media kept up a drumbeat of speculation about the prospect of an Israeli attack on Iran. Israel’s Channel 10 television said Netanyahu’s government was close to deciding whether to launch a strike.
“We have to do whatever we can to prevent Iran from endangering the freedom and independence of other people,” Peres said at his session with Clinton.
Netanyahu told her in public remarks: “We have our common effort to make sure that Iran not achieve its ambition of developing nuclear weapons.”
Clinton also met with Defence Minister Ehud Barak and with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who made no public remarks.
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.
Netanyahu told Clinton “we have to invest every effort to maintain the tranquility and see if we can move the process forward” with the Palestinians. But few diplomats expect any breakthrough ahead of the U.S. presidential election.
Editing by Peter Graff