Condi Diary: Pushing Peace in the Desert

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TIME's Elaine Shannon is traveling with the U.S. Secretary of State and will be filing regular dispatches from the four-day mission.

The desert teaches patience, and is thus a fine setting for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's mission to rally Arab leaders behind a revived Middle East peace process. At Aswan's Old Cataract Hotel, where luminaries like Tsar Nicholas II and Winston Churchill once sipped gin fizzes and stared out the Nubian desert, Rice swept briskly from meeting to meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Arab diplomats and security chiefs. "My approach has been, I admit, careful," Rice told reporters. "It's been step-by-step. I've not been willing to try for the big bang, I don't think that's where we are. I think there are a lot of moving pieces here."

Exactly what all those pieces were, Rice wasn't saying. On Sunday afternoon, in between meetings in Ramallah with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and in Jerusalem with Israeli President Ehud Olmert, Rice insisted that she had no set plan for achieving the Bush Administration's goal — establishing a Palestinian state able to live in peace with its neighbor Israel.

Her staff, however, has made it known that on Monday night, just prior to her scheduled return to Washington, Rice will appear at a podium somewhere in Jerusalem and make "remarks," presumably revealing elements of her "approach," as she likes to call it, for guiding the parties toward serious negotiations.

Rice did allow that her four-day swing was focused on revisiting the questions that have confronted every modern Middle Eastern leader and American president. "There have been lots of efforts at solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict," Rice said. "We all know what they are... To me, the most important thing is to lay the groundwork with each party, ultimately put them together, before you start forcing people to make negotiating positions known."

To be sure, many leaders and Middle East experts argue that positions among the disparate groups have been hardened for eons — and that the reason the conflict festers is that the parties have not found it in their interests to resolve it.

Moreover, they accuse the Bush Administration of neglecting the peace process until the situation is almost beyond repair. Rice heatedly denies such charges, pointing to President Bush's open embrace of the idea of a Palestinian state. "It is now the case that people accept the need for a two-state solution," Rice said. "That was not so in 2000... And so the President, I think, has helped to lay the foundation now on which we can build to try to finally bring about a Palestinian state, and he has made very clear that in his last year and a half in office, two years in office, that this will be one of our highest priorities."

Rice does acknowledge that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's decision to form a unity government with the militant group Hamas, which won control of the legislature and cabinet in January 2006 elections, has made her task "more difficult." But, she said Sunday, "there's never an uncomplicated time in the Middle East and so I will work with the parties this time to try to establish a common approach toward resolving these longstanding differences."

Upon her arrival in the Middle East, Rice found some leaders even more fractious than usual. On Sunday morning, as the Secretary was flying from Aswan to Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert publicly complained that Abbas "blatantly violated a series of commitments to Israel" by failing to achieve the release of Israeli solder Gilad Shalit, held captive by Palestinian gunmen, before forming a unity government. Abbas, standing at Rice's side, responded that he was moving carefully to assure that Shalit's life was preserved and that he would continue to press for his return to Israel.