Rice's Peace Mission: Prospects Grim

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Jim Hollander / EPA

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaking during her joint press conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Abbas' Ramallah, West Bank headquarters.

Lucky Condoleezza Rice. After a round of bruising meetings in Russia, the Secretary of State was rewarded with a ticket to the Middle East and a mission to convince the region's leaders to come to Maryland next month to discuss the most bedeviling issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Her daunting to-do list includes:

  • Secure the support and participation of Israelis, Palestinians and other Arabs skeptical of the purpose of the talks;
  • Fashion an agenda that includes substantial discussion on topics that have flummoxed legions of diplomats, and which some of the participants would prefer to gloss over; and
  • Secure sufficient Israeli and Palestinian agreement on a draft statement from the conference to ensure that the whole enterprise isn't sunk before it begins.

    Rice has certainly shown determination to meet the challenge — her schedule is relentless, her words forceful and urgent. And while doubts abound and crucial aspects of the conference are yet to be settled, Rice insists she wants real results. "We have better things to do than invite people to Annapolis for a photo op," she said Monday in Ramallah. Yet the nature of some of her meetings and the content of some of her statements hint at the serious limitations on what she — and those in the Bush Administration who support her efforts — can accomplish. Rice may insist that "Israelis and Palestinians are making their most serious effort in years to resolve the conflict," but dynamics on the ground continue to suggest otherwise.

    In the week prior to Rice's arrival, Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon opined that Israel should consider dividing Jerusalem, giving Arab neighborhoods to a Palestinian state and possibly ceding control over the Temple Mount. Predictably, the notion — last floated at the end of 2000 as the outgoing President Clinton sought to save the Oslo peace process — inflamed Israeli right-wingers. Some key coalition partners threatened to bolt Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's governing coalition, and some religious leaders vowed to mobilize mass protests. But the difficulties that the Israelis will face in even discussing the sharing of Jerusalem — a Palestinian bottom line — were only one factor complicating Rice's mission. In the same week, the Israeli army announced it had seized West Bank land just east of Jerusalem, giving the impression that it intended to restart a controversial plan to massively expand an already sizable Israeli settlement bloc in the West Bank. Naturally, the announcement was taken as a provocation by the Palestinians, and it was compounded by word that repair work would start anew on a pathway leading to the Temple Mount — a project that caused rioting earlier this year.

    Rice, it seems, took note of the potential of such moves to sabotage her effort. Shortly after her arrival, she said "We have to be very careful ... about actions and statements that erode confidence." At the same time, however, Olmert's office announced it had received assurances that Rice would not push Israel to do "anything that will not be acceptable to it." That came as Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmood Abbas were sparring over the need for and nature of a document addressing the contours of a possible solution, including "final statutes issues" such as Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees, security provisions, and the borders between Israel and a Palestinian state. Abbas wants a specific, binding document, while Olmert would prefer something less precise.

    Each man's position reflects his political reality. It would be politically perilous for Olmert, still enjoying the approval of no more than a quarter of Israelis, to commit himself on such hot-button issues while Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party waits to pounce on any perceived misstep. That has forced Rice to wade neck-deep into Israeli politics, meeting with two key conservative faction leaders in Olmert's coalition — Eli Yishai of the Shas Party and Avigdor Lieberman of Yisreal Beitenu, who have warned Olmert that they would bolt if he goes too far on any of the final status issues. It may be unusual for America's top diplomat to court such figures, and risk inflating their sense of their own influence, but she is hoping to ensure that the Annapolis gathering doesn't torpedo Olmert's government. Whether or not her talks succeeded remains to be seen.

    Palestinian negotiators watched these developments with alarm. Rice later sought to reassure Abbas, telling him, "It is time for the establishment of a Palestinian state," and pledging that "we are not going to tire until I have given my last ounce of energy and my last moment in office" to that effort. But doubts linger about what she can deliver, and even about the wisdom of going to Annapolis when failure could cost Abbas what little support he has left.

    "We are not sure that the conference will take place because the Palestinian-Israeli differences are very deep," a Palestinian negotiator told TIME. He claims the Americans are not living up to previous assurances that there would a specific document, that some West Bank checkpoints would be lifted, and that settlement construction would be frozen, at least temporarily, to give Abbas political cover. (A State Department spokesman tells TIME that "Rice is considering a broad range of issues, including settlements," and that "the U.S. urges all parties to avoid actions that might prejudice final status negotiations.")

    More than a few American diplomats have failed where Rice now treads, and her task is even harder now, when years have been lost, leaders on both sides have been weakened, and U.S. influence in the region has begun to wane. Even if she is able to get everyone to Annapolis, if the conference is perceived to be a failure, the very moderate forces in the Arab world that Washington has been trying to bolster will, instead, be further weakened. As she works against expectations on all sides to produce a conference that moves the conflict closer to a two-state solution, the best that many in the region are hoping for is that Annapolis doesn't make matters worse.

    With reporting by Jamil Hamad/Ramallah and Adam Zagorin/Washignton