We could all use a little good news, right? And while this is only the first step, at least it's movement in the right direction: JERUSALEM — Signa
March 4, 2009

We could all use a little good news, right? And while this is only the first step, at least it's movement in the right direction:

JERUSALEM — Signaling a new direction in Middle East diplomacy, the Obama administration will send two senior officials to Syria this weekend to begin discussions with the government, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said on a visit to Israel on Tuesday.

The overture suggests how the Obama administration intends to tackle three interlocking challenges in the Middle East: the nuclear threat posed by Iran; long-simmering tensions between Israel and Syria; and the grinding conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Syria, regional experts say, could be the key to alleviating all three.

By seeking an understanding with Syria, which has cultivated close ties to Iran, the United States could increase the pressure on Iran to respond to its offer of direct talks. Such an understanding would also give Arab states and moderate Palestinians the political cover to negotiate with Israel. That, in turn, could increase the burden on Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza, to relax its hostile stance toward Israel.

But in a region where even small steps take years to negotiate, officials sought to tamp down expectations of rapid progress. “It is a worthwhile effort to go and begin preliminary conversations,” Mrs. Clinton said, noting Syria’s wide influence in the region, as well as its troubled history with the United States. Yet, she cautioned, “we have no way to predict what the future of our relations with Syria might be.”

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