Rice Returns to Her Mideast Treadmill

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Awad Awar / AFP / Getty

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaks during a joint press conference with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in the Jordanian capital Amman on March 31, 2008.

A workout in the hotel gym at 5 a.m. is how U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice typically starts her day during her frequent visits to Jerusalem. Once she finishes her exercises, Rice starts pounding a different treadmill — a wearying circuit of meetings with Israeli and Palestinians, who do little more than blame one another for failing to reach peace.

On these occasions, Rice puts on a brave, smiling face and tries to sound upbeat. The Middle East peace process "is moving in the right direction," she vowed after talks on Monday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. She added that she believed that a final-status agreement on the creation of an independent Palestinian state could still be achieved before the Bush Administration leaves the White House in January 2009.

But the report card since last November's Annapolis peace summit has been a row of D's and F's, with one exception: Abbas probably rates a C- for working with the Americans to train a security force that will make the streets of Nablus and Jenin safer from armed gangs. But it's unlikely that the new police will be able to stop suicide bombers or rocket launchers from targeting Israel, which is all the Israelis rightly care about. In fact, Israeli officials make clear that even if a final-status agreement is concluded by year's end, it won't be implemented before the Palestinians have complied with President Bush's "road map," which requires them to close down the armed wing of Hamas and other militant groups.

On the Israeli side, the grades are just as bad, or worse. The U.S. recognizes that one of the keys to peace is for Israel to end its policy of settling its own citizens in the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967. For starters, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was supposed to halt new construction on settlements. But the Israeli activist group Peace Now released a study showing that since President Bush's Annapolis summit, Olmert has approved a surge in settlement building, with 946 homes built in the West Bank and another 750 in East Jerusalem. As much as this riles the White House, the unpopular Olmert knows that if he halts settlement construction, the right-wing nationalist parties will bring down his fragile coalition.

Moreover, some Israeli commentators suggest that Olmert can safely afford to ignore Rice's increasingly pointed admonishments over the settlements because the Bush Administration is a lame duck. Asked about Israel's new settlements at a press conference, Abbas winced and waved away the question. He has grown tired of banging out the same tired drumbeat of complaints to Rice and the Israelis, without getting any response.

Abbas desperately needs concessions from the Israelis in order to make Palestinians and other Arab states less suspicious of the peace process on which he's staked his political fate. The Palestinians, this time with Rice's backing, are insisting that the Israelis remove some of the roadblocks and checkpoints that choke the flow of goods and people between Palestinian towns on the West Bank. To coincide with Rice's latest visit, the Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak announced that he would remove some 50 roadblocks. But United Nations officials say that the number of Israeli roadblocks inside the Palestinian territories is steadily rising, from 472 in 2005 to over 580 today. Getting rid of 50 roadblocks, say Palestinians, is hardly enough. "The ones they've taken away will be back as soon as the Israelis declare a security alert," says one foreign official.

In May, President George W. Bush will be in Jerusalem for Israel's 60th Anniversary, and the White House was hoping for a breakthrough in Middle East peace talks to spruce up his visit. But it is doubtful that Rice, on her treadmill, will make any headway.

With reporting by Jamil Hamad/BethlehemK