JERUSALEM — For the first time in nearly a decade, U.S. lawmakers toured the isolated, battle-scarred Gaza Strip Thursday in a high-profile visit that came as the new Obama administration in Washington is developing its diplomatic priorities for the Middle East.
The short, separate tours by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and two other Democratic lawmakers marked the first time that high-level American officials have entered Gaza since the hard-line Islamist movement Hamas seized control of the Mediterranean coastal strip in 2007.
It also was the first time that U.S. lawmakers had gone to Gaza since the second Palestinian uprising broke out in 2000.
Before entering Gaza, Kerry made it clear that his visit didn't mean that the new American administration was preparing to reverse course and talk to Hamas leaders, who refuse to renounce their long-standing pledge to destroy Israel. None of the lawmakers met with Hamas leaders during the tours of Gaza.
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However, Kerry's tour, which will take him to Syria this weekend, is being watched closely by Middle East policymakers and Washington analysts, who are waiting to see whether President Barack Obama follows through on his pledge to make Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking a top priority in his first months in the White House.
"It is a clear signal that the American administration is exploring new ideas, because it is hard to believe that this visit would have happened without at least the tacit endorsement of the White House," said Gidi Grinstein, a former negotiator for then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the founder of the independent Reut Institute research center in Israel.
Perhaps the more important leg of Kerry's Middle East tour, Grinstein and other analysts said, is his visit to Syria.
With internal divisions still splitting the Palestinian political landscape, many suspect that there's a greater chance that Israel can secure a peace deal with Syria first. For more than a year, Israel and Syria have been holding indirect peace talks mediated by Turkey.
While Israel's recent 22-day military offensive in Gaza damaged that diplomatic initiative, analysts said it would be possible, if not probable, that the enemy nations would resume their diplomatic push.
Kerry's Gaza visit came as Israeli political leaders are embroiled in a standoff over who'll lead the next coalition government.
On Thursday, Avigdor Lieberman, the hard-line leader of Israel's biggest secular right-wing party, threw his support behind Benjamin Netanyahu, the hawkish former prime minister whose Likud Party is best-positioned to form a new coalition.
Lieberman said he'd back Netanyahu only if Likud formed a broad unity government that included Israel's centrist Kadima Party and its leader, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Kadima narrowly topped Likud in last week's parliamentary elections, but more right-leaning lawmakers were elected, making it easier for Netanyahu to become the next prime minister.
President Shimon Peres is expected to meet Friday with Livni and Netanyahu to discuss who should get the first chance to form a new government.
Livni already has indicated that she isn't willing to join a unity government led by Netanyahu with Lieberman, the head of the Israel Is Our Home party, as a major partner.
Should Netanyahu become the next prime minister, analysts across the political spectrum said that the conservative leader probably would be more likely to pursue peace talks with Syria than with the Palestinians.
"If Netanyahu becomes prime minister it will be easier for him politically to engage with the Syrian track rather than the Palestinian track," said Alon Liel, a former director of Israel's Foreign Ministry who's held unofficial peace talks with his Syrian counterparts in the past. "But the number one factor will be the Obama position. No prime minister would like to quarrel with Obama during his first year in office. The decision of where to go — to Damascus or Ramallah or Gaza — will be an American decision."
That view was echoed by Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator in the State Department who took part in previous Israeli-Syrian and Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
"Peacemaking in Israel has long been the purview of the right," said Miller. "It's never been doves talking the talk; it is hawks walking the walk."
While Netanyahu has pledged never to cede control of the Golan Heights to Syria — a central component to any peace deal — Miller, Liel and Grinstein all noted that when Netanyahu was prime minister, he cut two peace deals with the Palestinians after vowing never to do so.
Pushing peace talks with Syria also could take pressure off Netanyahu to pursue negotiations aggressively with the Palestinians.
"The Syrian track is the only potentially transformative track for the entire region," Grinstein said. "The Palestinian track is very, very complicated and would be very hard to make progress on."
That reality may have hit home Thursday for Kerry and the two congressmen in Gaza.
Before the U.S. visit, Gaza militants fired two rockets that landed without causing significant damage in southern Israel. The Israeli military responded by attacking the still-functioning network of smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border.
"Hamas has to change its policies," Kerry said while he toured Gaza's American International School, a private school that Israeli airstrikes destroyed in January.
Hamas expressed confidence that the trip could be a sign of warming relations.
"This is a good step in the right direction," said Ahmed Yousef, the deputy foreign minister for the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip. "It's still early to do something more, but we hope that Mr. Obama, God willing, will fulfill his promises about change."
On their separate visit, Democratic Reps. Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Brian Baird of Washington expressed shock at the damage they saw in Gaza.
"It is heartbreaking," Baird said. "It is far worse than we had imagined, and we had imagined that it would be very, very bad."
Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, said it was important for lawmakers in Washington to hear firsthand about the damage in Gaza caused by the Israeli attacks.
"I'm sad to tell you that it was probably American-made weaponry that did this," Ellison said during his visit. "I'm not proud of that."
(McClatchy special correspondents Ahmed Abu Hamda in the Gaza Strip and Cliff Churgin in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)
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