Condi Rice Tries to Look Busy

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in the Middle East, hoping to bolster Arab moderates — foremost among them beleaguered Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — and revive the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The unstated objectives include helping to topple the Hamas-led government elected by the Palestinians in January, and seeking to rally moderate Arab regimes against Iran. So what are her chances of success? Let's just say it's probably easier finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq than finding any Arabs or Israelis optimistic over Rice's prospects.

Pro-U.S. Arab leaders, including Abbas, have suffered acutely from the Bush Administration's Middle East policy, with their influence at home and abroad declining in the face of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its backing for Israel's actions in the West Bank, Gaza and Lebanon. The simple math of Middle East politics today is that the there's an inverse proportionality between the closeness of Arab leaders to the United States and their distance from public opinion in their own countries. That much was clear when some Arab officials pointedly criticized Hizballah for initiating the summer's hostilities with Israel, but were then forced to retract as their citizenry cheered for Hizballah.

Still, in order to secure their own long-term survival and calm the dangerous tensions rising in the region — and to make common cause with the U.S. against growing Iranian influence in the Middle East, which grew exponentially as a result of the toppling of Saddam Hussein — the Arab moderates beseeched the Bush Administration to give urgent attention to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But their chances of success are no better now than they ever were. The Bush Administration has shown no inclination to press Israel to accept the basic peace terms advocated by all Arab moderates, including Mahmoud Abbas: the 1967 borders as the premise of a peace deal, to which modifications can be negotiated on a quid pro quo basis.

Even if Abbas and the Arab moderates manage to persuade Hamas to accept those terms, Israel's governments since 2001 have rejected them. Sharon insisted that Israel would keep its key West Bank settlements and the Jordan valley, and would never share Jerusalem; the route of his security wall leaves the Palestinians hemmed in to two parcels of West Bank land, and Olmert has based his unilateral withdrawal plan on the map created by that wall. Last week Olmert even proclaimed that the Golan Heights, Syrian territory captured by Israel in the 1967 war, is "an inseparable part of the State of Israel." In other words, the current Israeli government has nothing to offer Arab moderates.

Nor, for that matter, does Condi Rice.

She can talk up Mahmoud Abbas and perhaps persuade the Israelis to ease their stranglehold on the border crossings in Gaza — until such time as security demands they be closed again. She can even find ways to channel some money through Abbas to bypass the elected government. But there are no indications that she intends to press the Israelis into a peace deal. And her Administration's efforts to topple Hamas through a financial siege may have rendered the Palestinian territories ungovernable, not only by Hamas but by anyone. Government is barely existent in much of the West Bank and Gaza, with salaries unpaid and security in the hands of rival bands of gunmen loyal to factions rather than any central authority. Last weekend's deadly clashes between Fatah and Hamas gunmen may simply have been the opening volleys of a Palestinian civil war. Hamas will certainly not go quietly, and retains the support of close to half of mainstream Palestinian society.

The Israelis will be the first to tell Rice that, nice fellow and peacenik though he may be, President Abbas has negligible power on the Palestinian street, even over his own Fatah movement. He's never been a particularly decisive leader, and Rice's efforts to bolster him through public praise and symbolic photo opportunities may have the reverse effect — given the crisis in the Palestinian territories right now and the anti-American sentiment it has engendered, the demonstrative but empty-handed U.S. support for Abbas may be a political kiss of death.

If the Arab moderates are looking to Rice to restart a peace process aimed at securing a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, it's a safe bet that they will, once again, be left twisting in the wind. Still, with her Administration's policy in Iraq patently failing and even Afghanistan starting to unravel just as tensions with Iran mount, Secretary Rice has plenty of incentive for shuttling around Middle Eastern capitals. Sometimes, the best you can do is look busy.