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First Lady sticks to a safe agenda for Jerusalem visit

WITH THE scent of peace in the air, albeit faint, western leaders are growing accustomed to walking on eggshells in Israel; Hillary Clinton is no exception.

But the American First Lady, who touched down yesterday for a trip to the region, had political reasons of her own to avoid Middle East politics - namely, her own as yet undeclared senatorial contest at home. Whatever she says and does on her trip - the agenda is built around safe social issues like health and violence in schools - it will inevitably be seen as a pitch for the critical Jewish vote in New York.

She is therefore unlikely to repeat her statement last year, which angered the Israeli right wing, that the Palestinians should eventually have a "functioning modern state", a remark that was also criticised for pre- empting the peace negotiations.

The trip is full of footfalls. Her US advisers have reportedly long agonised over whether she should travel to Palestinian-controlled areas or venture into Jerusalem's Old City to visit the Wailing Wall, a sacred site among Jews but an age-old flashpoint in the conflict. While the latter may advance her senatorial bid, it could prove damaging to the interests of her husband, who is pushing to seal a peace deal before the end of his term.

Mrs Clinton said nothing publicly as she touched down at Ben-Gurion airport. But she was not allowed to forget her political future. During a trip to Tel Aviv University to deliver a speech, four students appeared brandishing a banner reading "American Jews Support Rudy Guiliani" - the city's republican mayor, and her likely rival.She then travelled to Jerusalem for a private dinner with the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, and his wife, Nava.

Her visit, which was postponed from March because of the Israeli elections and the death of King Hussein of Jordan, also includes a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum outside Jerusalem, a trip to an Israel hospital, and an event for mothers and children in the Palestinian-run West Bank city of Ramallah.