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In Mideast, Rice Seeks ‘first Downs’ Rather Than Immediate Touchdowns

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The Bush administration isn’t expecting any miracles in the Middle East, but the momentum started by Israel’s pullout from the Gaza Strip must be kept going, senior officials say. Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state — who once said her dream job is NFL commissioner — used football terminology last week when she met with leaders of the Israel Policy Forum to discuss her visit next week to Israel and the Palestinian areas.

“She didn’t anticipate a breakthrough” in time for January elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council, “but she was hoping for ‘first downs,’ ” said Seymour Reich, president of IPF, a group that promotes greater U.S. engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Rice especially emphasized the need for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to crack down on terrorism, Reich told JTA.

“The emphasis was on performance by Abbas and the critical time between now and the January elections,” Reich said. Rice believes Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon “wanted to move forward, but would not do so unless there was an effort made by Abbas to clamp down on terrorism.”

Rice can elaborate on her gridiron metaphors when she meets separately Sunday with Sharon and Abbas in Jerusalem and Ramallah. It’s her fourth visit to the region this year, underscoring the Bush administration’s increased investment in the peace process as it weathers scandals at home and chaos in Iraq.

One measure of the administration’s seriousness is that it persuaded James Wolfensohn, the top western envoy to the region, to postpone for several months his new job as head of the Citigroup banking group.

Rice’s representatives continue to insist that the most pressing issue is Abbas’ failure to contain terrorism.

“We have talked about the importance of the Palestinian Authority acting to stop violence, to stop terror, to dismantle terrorist organizations,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said last week.

For Israelis, the issue is pressing because of an increase in terrorist attacks in recent weeks, including a suicide bombing in Hadera that killed six Israelis and rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip.

But Israeli officials are frustrated that the Americans speak of Palestinian responsibilities only in vague terms, without setting specific markers for Abbas.

“What does she expect from him?” one senior Israeli official asked.

Israelis are beginning to lose faith in Abbas. Moshe Ya’alon, the former Israeli military chief of staff, said Abbas hasn’t lived up to the hopes created when his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, died last year. Israel and the United States isolated Arafat in his final years because of his ties to terrorism.

“I really wanted to believe that Abu Mazen would want to go to a compromise,” Ya’alon, using Abbas’ nickname, said last week in an address to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “That is not the case so far.”

P.A. officials counter that they must be able to show Palestinians further dividends — beyond Israel’s recent Gaza withdrawal — to make the case for peace.

Disarming terrorist groups “won’t happen with no evidence of a peace process,” said Hind Khoury, the P.A. minister for Jerusalem. She was in Washington last week meeting with officials in the administration and Congress and outlining what she described as Israel’s slow strangulation of Jerusalem.

The security barrier Israel is building around Jerusalem cuts off Palestinians from their commercial and cultural capital, Khoury contended. She said restrictions keep most West Bank health workers and teachers from making it into the city, which has the largest Palestinian population in the area.

In contrast with the general expectations of the Palestinians, McCormack set out in great detail U.S. expectations of Israel, especially when it comes to easing Palestinian living conditions.

Rice would seek “ways to address some of the concerns that the Palestinians have about transportation of goods at crossings points; how through the use of technology the two sides can work to modify the existing system,” he said, while “maintaining the security that the Israelis rightly want to ensure.”

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz got the point loud and clear at a meeting with Rice last week in Washington.

“We will do our best to ease conditions for the Palestinian system, in order to help Abu Mazen win elections,” Mofaz told reporters.

That made explicit what U.S. officials have only suggested: The demand that Israel ease conditions is linked to hopes that Abbas, a relative moderate, will triumph in the January elections.

Mofaz also pointedly said that Israel would not interfere with the elections, resolving another issue that had unsettled the Americans. Sharon previously had suggested that Israel could hinder the elections if Hamas or other terrorist groups participate.

U.S. officials have said they’re uncomfortable about Hamas’ participation, but fear that trying to stop terrorist groups from running could end up strengthening them.

Khoury is concerned that Israel will stick to 1996 rules that allowed only 5,000 Palestinians in Jerusalem to vote at four polling stations. Mofaz would not commit to a modality for elections in Jerusalem.

There was one bright light: Mofaz said Egypt has clamped down on arms smuggling along the Egypt-Gaza border, which could accelerate a reopening of the Rafah crossing. Palestinians want to assume control of their major outlet into the Arab world.

“There is still much to do” on the crossing, he warned, but some progress was marked this week when the European Union, Israel and the Palestinians agreed that E.U. officials would monitor the crossing.

A senior Israeli official said Israel will offer to accelerate the reopening and upgrade of crossings into Israel at Karni and Erez. Rafah is the more symbolic crossing, linking the Palestinians with the Arab world, but Israeli officials will tell Rice that Erez and Karni have more practical applications, with increased commercial activity translating into more jobs.

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