At Senate Hearings, Rice Stresses She’s Committed to Brokering Peace

Condoleezza Rice could be forgiven for wishing that all she had to talk about was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Bipartisan agreement that there is new hope in the region was among the few calm spots in confirmation hearings this week for President Bush’s nominee for his second-term secretary of state.

The friendly exchanges between Rice and some of the Bush administration’s toughest critics in the Senate underscore the unanimity of support for President Bush’s path to peace in the region.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved Rice’s nomination by a vote of 16 to 2 — Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) voted against her — and referred it to the full Senate, which was expected to confirm Rice later this week.

Rice said she expected to devote much of her time to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“We all believe, and most especially the president, that we have a really good opportunity here, given the election of a new Palestinian leader and given the Israeli-Gaza withdrawal plan, which is linked to the West Bank through the four settlements that would be dismantled in the West Bank as well,” Rice said at hearings Tuesday. “I expect myself to spend an enormous amount of effort on this activity.”

Rice was spare on details, but outlines were familiar: an expectation that Israel would withdraw from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank and that the Palestinians would stop terrorism.

Such diplomatic efforts, senators said, would benefit from Rice’s closeness to President Bush, forged through his 2000 campaign and then over his first term, when Rice served as Bush’s national security adviser.

“In Iraq, across the Middle East, in North Korea, in our relations with China, and in so many other places we face major challenges. I would submit that Dr. Rice has the skill, the judgment and the poise and the leadership to lead in these difficult times,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in a friendly introduction.

“When Dr. Rice meets with Hu Jintao or Ariel Sharon or Vladimir Putin, there will be no doubt that she speaks for and on behalf of the president of the United States,” Feinstein said, referring to the leaders of China, Israel and Russia, respectively.

The unstated implication: Outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell’s inability to develop a personal relationship with Bush meant he was less effective in dealing with those leaders and regions.

Rice’s closeness to Bush is her greatest advantage: Even her toughest critics said she appeared headed for an overwhelming confirmation vote and could be sworn in the same day as her boss, who takes office Thursday.

“You are going to be confirmed and everybody knows that,” said Kerry, the 2004 Democratic candidate. But he added that he would vote against her because of Rice’s role in formulating Bush’s Iraq policy.

Still, Rice didn’t have an easy ride.

Republicans and Democrats alike asked tough questions about a wide range of Bush administration policies, ranging from its isolation of the Chavez regime in Venezuela to its efforts to contain nuclear proliferation.

In one contentious session, Boxer came as close as she could, within the confines of genteel Senate rules, to calling Rice a liar for her role in defending the Iraq war.

“Your loyalty to the mission you were given, to sell this war, overwhelmed your respect for the truth,” Boxer said.

Rice choked back tears in her reply.

“Senator, I have to say that I have never, ever lost respect for the truth in the service of anything,” she said. “It is not my nature. It is not my character. And I would hope that we can have this conversation and discuss what happened before and what went on before and what I said without impugning my credibility or my integrity.”

Republicans were hardly less tough. Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) accused Rice of lacking consistency in propping up repressive regimes in the formerly Soviet Caucasus, but coming down hard on the democratically elected Venezuelan government.

Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) took a shot at the Bush administration’s emphasis on Social Security reform at the expense of other pressing issues.

But, like a dental patient hearing the drill wind down, Rice’s face lit up every time the Israeli-Palestinian issue came up.

“I look forward to personally working with Palestinian and Israeli leaders and bringing American diplomacy to bear on this difficult but crucial issue,” she said. “Peace can only come if all parties choose to do the difficult work, and the time to choose peace is now.”

Rice evaded pressure for details.

“No one has objections in principle to the idea of an envoy, but it is a question of whether that is appropriate to a particular point in time in the process that we’re involved in,” she said when Hagel pressed her on whether she thought Bush should appoint a full-time envoy to the region.

She was similarly cagy when Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) asked her how much the United States expected to spend to promote Palestinian institution-building.

“I will look with others when I get to State at precisely how we might fund the obligations that I’m sure we’re going to have to undertake to help the Palestinians in this important period of time,” she said.

Rice suggested the United States would help pay to train Palestinian Authority security forces.

“Clearly the training of the security forces is going to be critical,” she said. “They’ve got to fight terrorism. They’ve got to have trained security forces to do it. It will be a good investment to train those forces.”

Rice went out of her way to emphasize the West Bank element in Israel’s planned withdrawals this year, apparently seeking to address criticism that Sharon is planning a “Gaza first and last” feint.

She told Chafee she expects any Palestinian state formed in the West Bank to be contiguous and have a border with Jordan.

“It has to have territory that makes it viable,” she said. “It cannot be territory that is so broken up that it can’t function as a state, and I think that that’s now well understood. Has to have economic viability, and there it probably needs to have economic viability in relationship to other states around it — to Jordan, to Israel and to others.”

She also said ending terrorism and incitement against Israel was crucial, and singled out for criticism “moderate” Arab states that say one thing to diplomats and another to their citizens.

“There are other roles that we need the Arab states to play,” she said, after calling for Arab financial support for the Palestinians. “I think the most important is, you can’t incite hatred against Israel and then say you want a two-state solution. It’s just got to stop. They’ve got to stop it in their media, they’ve got to stop it in their mosques, because it is a message that is inciting the people who want to destroy the chances for peace between Israel and Palestine.”

Rice cited Syria in this regard.

“It is incumbent on Syria to respond finally to the entreaties of the United States and others about their ties to terrorism,” she said in response to a question from Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.).

Rice’s command of the Middle East issue was clear, but she faltered slightly on another topic — anti-Semitism. Pressed by Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), Rice confessed that she was not aware that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe so far has failed to budget for a promised anti-Semitism monitoring office. Voinovich accused Russia of blocking the office.

“I will look into the budget issue,” Rice said. “I was not aware of the budget issue, but I will look into that.”

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