Rice Visit Leaves Palestinians Gloomy

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Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas listens to a question from a journalist during a joint press conference with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (unseen) in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Rice arrived in Ramallah today for talks with Abbas aimed at reviving the stalled Middle East peace process.

After meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made no effort to hide his grim expression from his staff. From the Palestinian perspective, the talks hadn't gone well. Abbas had complained to Rice that an earlier chat and a bear hug with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, at the Secretary of State's behest, had only landed him in trouble with his fellow Palestinians. According to a presidential aide, he told Rice that "Olmert embarrassed me by not implementing a single Israeli promise."

Olmert had vowed to release $100 million in Palestinian funds frozen by Israel after Hamas became the government last March. Olmert also promised to remove some of the more than 400 roadblocks inside the Palestinian territories. Israel has so far failed to deliver on either promise, according to Palestinian officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Abbas was also miffed at the public discussion in the U.S. of Bush Administration plans to secure $86 million from U.S. Congress to arm forces loyal to Abbas for a looming battle with Hamas. According to one insider, Abbas had wanted this kept secret. "This has put us in more trouble with Hamas," griped one Abbas aide.

After Rice and her phalanx of bodyguards and advisers left Abbas's office in Ramallah, one Palestinian source close to the Palestinian president reported gloomily that "She didn't bring anything new." He added: "The American 'Road Map' is a dead body, and implementing the plan will enable Israelis to swallow more of the West Bank." The reasoning, say Abbas supporters, is that Abbas cannot comply with Rice's demands that he disarm Hamas militants, and Abbas's failure to do this will embolden the Israelis to erect more Jewish settlements inside the Palestinian territories. "What she's asking — this is a joke," said one Abbas aide.

Rice also warned Abbas that the Bush Administration took a dim view of the Palestinian leader's proposed trip to Damascus for a meeting with Hamas's exiled leader Khaled Mashaal in a bid to pacify the near-civil war that has erupted in recent months between militants of Fatah and Hamas. Rice made it clear to Abbas, said one Palestinian source, that "she's worried Hamas will impose its conditions on Abbas."

The meeting simply reiterated Abbas's dilemma: "On one hand, Abbas knows it's important to keep U.S. support, but if he does, it will lead him into deeper conflict with Hamas," said one Palestinian source.

Even before this meeting, relations between Abbas and Rice were frosty. A senior Palestine Liberation Organization official, who sat in on meetings between the two says: "She acts like a school headmistress, telling her student in a commanding tone to do this, or don't do that."

Diana Buttu, a political consultant and former legal adviser to the PLO, adds: “They're not interested in solving the conflict in any meaningful way — just uttering nice slogans, that's it."

The view of Rice as being detached from the realities on the ground is underscored by a Palestinian professor who had previously dealt with Rice: "She thinks of big issues as small ones,” he says. "She believed that Israelis could wipe out Hizballah, and she believes — mistakenly — that Abbas can wipe out Hamas from Gaza and the West Bank."

Moreover, Palestinian officials say, their dim view of Rice's efforts is shared by other Arabs. One official spoke of a rift between the Bush Administration and the Saudis that has become so intense that "Abbas was advised by a Saudi official not to believe what Rice says or follow her instructions." Indeed, despite U.S. efforts to persuade Arab regimes to shun and isolate Hamas, the Saudis invited Hamas Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh to join the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca, giving him royal treatment all the way, including use of a private jet that flew him from Egypt to Saudi Arabia.

Abbas aides say that in private conversations, the Saudis complain that Rice "doesn't understand the chemistry of the Middle East."

But if Arab officials are frustrated by Rice, their Israeli counterparts enjoy working with her: One Israeli official speaking off the record said: "She's an amazing, eloquent and elegant lady, but she can be as tough as nails. She knows what she wants when she goes into a meeting. She's decided beforehand what's possible and what isn't." Daniel Ayalon, ex-Israeli ambassador to Washington, who has been friends with Rice for 10 years, adds, "She has gravitas. She's grown into this job in a magnificent way. She has toughness and grit."

Still, for all those plaudits, Secretary Rice may discover, once again, in the course of her Middle East tour aimed at restarting peace efforts and building support for Iraq and against Iran, that enjoying the confidence of one side is not enough.