On the night flight to Egypt, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice planned to curl up with Michael Oren's Power, Faith and Fantasy, America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present. Recommending the bestseller to the reporters traveling with her, she noted that American involvement in the region went back to Thomas Jefferson.
Rice is a passionate reader, to be sure, but her allusion to Jefferson, who wrestled with Barbary pirate attacks on American sailors two centuries ago, may also have been her way of illustrating the intractability of Mideast problems and of lowering expectations. As she embarked late Friday on a four-day swing across the region, Rice knew very well how little time she had left to work toward the breathtakingly ambitious goal set by President Bush: the creation of a Palestinian state that could live alongside Israel in peace.
Her aims for the trip, the second in as many months, are modest: "Right now," Rice said, "my primary goal is to establish a mechanism, a common approach, that I can use with them in parallel so that we are addressing the same issues. That's really the key right now." That is Rice's diplo-speak for her hopes of guiding Israeli and Palestinian leaders along parallel tracks to see a common "political horizon," to use one of her favorite phrases. The problem is that direct talks cannot happen so long as Israel refuses to deal with the Hamas faction of the newly formed Palestinian unity, which still does not explicitly recognize Israel's right to exist.
Rice and the Europeans have refused to join Israel in this blanket boycott; but the Secretary of State is not about to embrace Hamas either. However, if she wants to get something going between the Israelis and Palestinians, Rice will have to figure out a way to deal with Hamas without explicitly dealing with Hamas. As it is, she intends to conduct wide-ranging talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (with whom Israel will speak) and last week had Jacob Walles, the U.S. Consul General in Jerusalem, meet with Palestinian finance minister Salam Fayyad, a former World Bank official and political independent. (After the Walles-Fayyad meeting, the State Department issued a statement declaring that "the U.S. will not suspend contact with individual Palestinians solely on the ground that they hold office in the unity government.") She will urge Abbas to work for "confidence building" moves towards Israel, such as the release of Corporal Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier seized by Hamas inside Israel on June 25. Then she'll shuttle over to Israel, pressing for similar gestures, such as giving the Palestinian populace more freedom of movement.
Ultimately, Rice believes the Arab states are crucial to pushing Hamas toward the center. And thus Egypt is her first stop. She arrived in Aswan on Saturday afternoon, and she is meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and other Arab leaders over the rest of the weekend and into Monday. Soon after touching down, she went behind closed doors to talk with Arab foreign ministers and intelligence chiefs. Rice will urge Arab leaders, who are scheduled to hold a summit in Riyadh on Wednesday, March 28, to revive a 2002 proposal by the Arab League to recognize Israel in exchange for major concessions on the Palestinian issue. Only she wants them to put some action behind the words of the offer. The League never set up a team to negotiate with Israel; it merely came up with a plan. As Rice would know, it's missing a mechanism.