[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/WORLD/meast/07/27/gates.mideast/art.gates.barak.gi.jpg caption="U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, left, shakes hands with his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Barak."]
CNN State Department Producer
Don't you just love a parade? Apparently the Obama administration does too, as evident by the steady stream of top US officials visiting Israel this week. A bevy of heavy hitters are there, the likes of which Jerusalem hasn't seen since the Persian Gulf War.
Just as Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrapped up his meetings there, Mideast peace envoy Mitchell arrived for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He will be followed later this week by National Security Advisor James Jones and Dennis Ross, the White House's point main on Iran.
Aaron Miller, a former Mideast peace negotiator under president Clinton and author of "The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace," calls it "the big hug," a show of reassurance to Israel that the US Israeli relationship remains strong despite the current squabble over settlements.
To be sure, ties between the countries have been strained over President Obama's firm insistence that Israel halt all settlement as part of his drive for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, including a Palestinian state. And Israel is concerned Obama's engagement policy vis-à-vis Iran will come at the expense of its own security.
But the flurry of diplomatic activity sends a strong signal that these disagreements are minor in comparison to how central the US-Israel relationship is, and how large Israel looms in every piece of the American policy puzzle in the Mideast.
Which is why Gates offered Israel security reassurances with talks on Iran and missile defense. And why Mitchell emphasized the enduring strength of the friendship between the US and Israel and has been working on a deal with the Israelis on settlements, which is expected to include a freeze on construction but would allow several hundred buildings already under construction to be exempted.
One question remains about this diplomatic A-team, though. Where is Hillary Clinton? The Secretary of State hasn't visited the Middle East March, when held one day of talks with Israeli officials. She has not been to Israel since Netanyahu took office.
To be fair, Clinton just returned from a 7-day trip to Asia and spent the beginning of the week hosting top Chinese officials for two days of strategic talks. Next week she leaves for a seven-nation tour of Africa.
But on Sunday Clinton appeared Sunday NBC's "Meet the Press," where she missed an opportunity to frame the week's visits within the context of the Obama administration's plans for Mideast peacemaking. She spent a fair amount of time insisting she was President Obama's chief diplomat and and deflecting criticism that she was "sidelined" by President Obama's team of foreign policy heavyweights and because of an elbow injury. "I broke my elbow, not my larynx," she told David Gregory.
Yet in the full hour President Obama's chief diplomat didn't mention the Mideast peace process, one of Obama's stated top foreign policy priorities, even once. Clinton already enjoys a healthy dose of Israeli respect from her days as a pro-Israel senator from New York. Now Clinton must also define herself, both in word and in deed, as a key player on the President's Mideast peace team.
President Obama, too, has to work at his relationship with Israel. His aides can only do so much to ease Israeli fears about his intentions. Candidate Obama got high marks for visit to Israel during the campaign. But if he wants to now been seen as the kind of honest broker that can achieve true Mideast peace, he needs to make his own trip to Israel. His Cairo speech in June established his credentials with the Arab world. Now it's Israel's turn.
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