As Rice Heads to Mideast, She Juggles Two Contradictory Views

For the third time this year, Condoleezza Rice heads to the Middle East peddling peace — but this time with two views that may be tough to reconcile. One is that both Israelis and Palestinians need to take steps to ensure the smoothness of next month’s Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. The other is that it is the Palestinian Authority that principally has failed the “road map” peace process in recent months — and which may not yet be capable of making peace.

The U.S. secretary of state’s mission to the region, tacked on at the last minute to an African tour and coming just a month after her previous foray, assumes added urgency this week with an intensification of violence between Israel and terrorist groups; belated attempts by P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas to confront the terrorists; and a determined, last-ditch effort by Israeli right-wingers to scuttle the Gaza Strip evacuation.

One U.S. view was evident in the carefully worded language coming out of the State Department this week.

“Both parties need to make a maximum effort to make this withdrawal successful,” Rice’s spokesman, Sean McCormack, said Monday, the day before her departure. “We also urge both parties to exercise restraint and to restore calm.”

Yet a report drafted by the State Department, which President Bush will soon submit to Congress, suggests quite a different outlook, one that blames the lack of progress on the Palestinian Authority’s failures.

“Despite the P.A.’s public condemnations of violence, the P.A. did not deploy its security resources consistently and effectively against terrorism during the reporting period,” which dates to January 2005, the report said. “A general atmosphere of impunity persisted, allowing terrorist groups to act without fearing either legal or political consequences.”

The contradiction inherent in Rice’s mission is embodied in the report itself: Despite its overwhelmingly negative tone, Bush is submitting it to justify his decision to waive congressional restrictions that would bar the direct disbursement of assistance to the Palestinian Authority. The report accompanies Bush’s directive to disburse $50 million directly to the Palestinian Authority.

Unable to document progress on the P.A. side, the report instead argues that U.S. assistance will help bolster Abbas’ standing among the Palestinians, which would help him face down the terrorists.

“The United States has a national security interest in helping Israel and the Palestinians move forward toward peace,” the report says. “We must send the signal to the Palestinian people and to the broader international community that the United States will do all it can to support the P.A. leadership and help with infrastructure development necessary for Palestinian economic recovery, especially as Israel proceeds with its plan to disengage from Gaza and parts of the northern West Bank.

“Direct assistance at this crucial time provides a tangible sign of U.S. support for the P.A. leadership and the Palestinian people — particularly important as Palestinian electoral processes continue.”

The administration is concerned that Hamas and other militant Islamist groups will make gains in legislative elections later this year.

JTA obtained the report before it reached congressional appropriators. Staffers at congressional offices declined comment.

“As Israel is undertaking disengagement, a historic sacrifice in pursuit of peace, this report from the White House is the latest indication that the Palestinian Authority continues to fail in its responsibility to fight terrorism,” said Josh Block, a spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “The Palestinian Authority must dismantle the terrorist organizations. That means fighting terrorism for real — taking away the bullets and guns and bombs and rockets — and putting terrorists in jail.”

The value of the assistance lies less in the actual cash than in the symbolism of Bush’s determination to get the money directly to the Palestinian Authority, said Larry Garber, who until last year was the West Bank and Gaza director for the U.S. Agency for International Development, which oversees such assistance.

“It shows the president’s confidence” in Abbas, said Garber, who is now the executive director of the New Israel Fund. “Symbolically, it resonates.”

But Garber said one idea expressed in the report — that the cash will help Abbas in the elections — might be misplaced.

“I have strong doubts about the efficacy of trying to impact elections through this assistance,” he said. “I think people will realize it’s U.S. assistance, but I’m not sure it translates into people voting differently.”

In any case, attached to the money are nine oversight conditions typical of USAID assistance, which could keep it from having an impact before the elections.

The United States — and to a lesser degree, Israel — favor Abbas as a relative moderate. Since Abbas’ election in January, Israel has been frustrated by his unwillingness to fulfill P.A. commitments to confront the terrorists.

Abbas prefers to neutralize militant groups by co-opting them into his government, a strategy Israel says only allows terrorist groups to regroup and rearm.

Abbas complains that Israel won’t allow the Palestinian Authority to arm sufficiently to confront the terrorists, an assertion supported by the top U.S. security envoy to the region, Gen. William Ward.

Israel says it’s reluctant to allow the Palestinian Authority to rearm because of past alliances between terrorists and P.A. security personnel. Under Abbas’ plan to co-opt militant groups, many terrorists simply would be absorbed into the P.A. security forces.

In recent days, U.S. officials have praised Abbas’ decision last week to have P.A security forces confront militants in the streets of Gaza.

That violence and an intensification of antiwithdrawal activities by Israeli prosettler groups underscore the urgency for Rice to smooth the Gaza evacuation. Her top envoy to the region, David Welch, has spent more time there than in Washington in recent weeks.

With Iraq still mired in violence and the West at odds over how to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the Bush administration is in need of a Middle East success.

Pro-Israel lobbyists in Washington are focusing on the assistance Israel will require after it leaves Gaza. Israeli negotiators presented a plan last week for development of the Negev and Galilee, the regions likeliest to absorb most of the 10,000 settlers slated for evacuation.

Lobbyists for AIPAC and Americans for Peace Now are busy on the Hill this week setting the stage for Israel’s request, now in the process of negotiation between senior Israeli public servants and their White House counterparts. Some reports have estimated the figure at $2.2. billion.

In a release Tuesday, APN outlined ways that assistance could help the Gaza withdrawal advance the peace process, including development of the Negev and Galilee; a rail link to the Israeli port Ashdod to ensure the Gaza Strip’s economic viability; and cash for security zones that would facilitate the passage of Palestinians and their goods between Gaza and Israel.

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