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Egypt tops agenda during Clinton trip to Israel

Oded Balilty / AP

Hillary Rodham Clinton, left, and Israel's President Shimon Peres hug after a joint statement at the president's residence in Jerusalem on Monday.

Updated at 12:30 p.m. ET: JERUSALEM -- Israeli officials and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who arrived in the country on Monday, will focus first and foremost on the political transition in Egypt where the Islamist President Mohammed Morsi took office two weeks ago.

"At the top of it (her agenda) will be her impressions and assessment of the last two days that she spent in Egypt," a senior U.S. official told reporters on condition of anonymity. 


Clinton, on her first trip to Israel in 22 months, and only her fourth visit as secretary of state, flew to Israel from Egypt, where she held talks on Saturday with Morsi, a former Muslim Brotherhood member, who told her Egypt will respect its international treaties. 

Many in Israel have grown increasingly concerned about the regime change in Egypt, with fears that the new government will cancel visa agreements, fail to crack-down on terrorists trying to enter the country and increase support for Hamas, the militant group that governs Gaza. 

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"She is bringing a very calming message," Danny Ayalon, the Israeli deputy foreign minister, told Israel Radio. "By their (the U.S.) reckoning as well, Egypt's agenda, and certainly President Morsi's agenda, will be a domestic agenda.

"He has to rehabilitate the economy there ... internal challenges that are really of utmost importance," Ayalon said according to Haaretz. "There is no change (on Egypt's commitment to the peace treaty) and I surmise there will not be in the foreseeable future." 

Protesters in Alexandria, Egypt, throw shoes, tomatoes and a water bottle at the motorcade of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. NBC's Lester Holt reports.

 

The downfall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak last year has raised questions among Israelis about whether Egypt, the first Arab nation to have made peace with Israel, will adhere to that treaty under his Islamist successor.

Clinton also saw Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, head of the military council that took over when Mubarak was ousted and that is vying for influence with Morsi.

NBC News Special Correspondent Martin Fletcher, who has covered Israel for 30 years, said the big issue for Israel was indeed the changes in Egypt but more specifically lawless situation in the Sinai Penninsula.

"The bottom line is the Sinai has always been a smugglers' haven. The currency du jour, apart from African refugees, women and drugs being smuggled into Israel, is arming and providing support and shelter for Islamic militants," Fletcher said.

'Testing the water'
Analysts said Clinton was “testing the water” with the new regimes in the Middle East.

"Secretary of State Clinton's tour in the region aims to emphasize the American presence and interests in each Arab country and in particular in Egypt," according to Dr. Mahdi Abdul Hadi, the head of Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, an organization of Palestinian academics and intellectuals. 

"Although she was very careful in her meetings and subsequent statements, the message was clearly to reinforce the links with each Arab capital and to assure Israel of its unremitting support in terms of Camp David with Egypt and the endless negotiations with the Palestinians, in addition to ongoing military strategic alliance vis-a-vis Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas," Hadi told NBC News.

Syria civil war?
Clinton anticipates a discussion about the Arab Spring, which not only brought about Mubarak's downfall in Egypt but also sparked what has become a virtual civil war in Syria, leading to instability on two of Israel's borders. 

The U.S. official said Clinton also expected to have lengthy talks with Israeli officials about the Iranian nuclear program. 

The United States and its allies suspect Iran of using its civilian nuclear program as a cover to develop atomic weapons. Iran denies that its nuclear work has a military dimension, insisting it is for electricity generation and medical needs. 

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The standoff over the issue has led the United States and other major powers to adopt a two-track approach of negotiating with Iran to try to curb its program while also imposing ever harsher economic sanctions. 

Israel, widely thought to be the only country in the Middle East with a nuclear weapons capacity, has made clear it could strike Iran if diplomacy fails to halt its nuclear work. 

Iran window closing
"With negotiations with Iran stalled and Israel's self-declared window for action closing, the U.S. no doubt feels the need to keep the Israelis in lock-step with Washington through intensive high-level engagement," said Rob Danin, an analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations who also advises Tony Blair, representative of the Quartet of Middle East mediators.

White House National Security Adviser Tom Donilon visited Israel over the weekend and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is due to visit shortly, the senior U.S. official said, describing this as part of normal, intense U.S.-Israeli engagement.

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Clinton was scheduled to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and President Shimon Peres.

She will also see Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad but not President Mahmoud Abbas, whom she met on July 6 in Paris.

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.

Asked in an interview Sunday with WJLA-TV, a Washington D.C. station, what he believed he failed at, President Barack Obama cited Arab-Israeli peace efforts.

"I have not been able to move the peace process forward in the Middle East the way I wanted," he said. "It's something we focused on very early. But the truth of the matter is that the parties, they've got to want it as well."  

NBC News' Lawahez Jabari, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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