News Analysis Rice Focuses on Endgame, but Says

Neutralize the defense. Close the holes. How hard is it to think of the next play and the endgame simultaneously?

Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state and would-be football analyst, expertly neutralized at least one group skeptical of her recent Palestinian-Israeli peace push: The organizational Jewish community.

Rice, who shocked ESPN last week with her detailed rundown of how the Super Bowl would play out, showed similar finesse last week in a meeting with leaders of 15 Jewish organizations.

Rice’s bottom line: She’s ready to take her renewed effort to revive Israeli-Palestinian dialogue up a notch to discuss the “destination” of any agreement, but the United States is still committed to pre-existing conditions for such a deal and would not seek to impose a solution on the parties.

“There will be no surprises for Israel when we walk into the room,” Rice said, according to several participants who spoke to JTA after the Feb. 8 meeting, referring to a Feb. 19 summit with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Hanging over the proceedings was the national unity agreement being hammered out in Mecca on the same day by Abbas, a relative moderate who leads the Fatah Party, and Khaled Meshaal, the exiled leader of the Hamas terrorist group, aimed at ending months of internecine Palestinian fighting.

Hamas, which runs the P.A. Cabinet and holds a majority in the legislature, rejects Israel’s existence and will not renounce terrorism — conditions set by the international community before it will resume direct aid to the P.A. government. Hamas’ refusal to agree to those terms in early December precipitated the near-civil war that has been raging in Palestinian areas.

While Hamas did not commit in Mecca to honor past Palestinian peace agreements with Israel, it did agree to “respect” them, which some have taken as a renunciation of terrorism and implicit acceptance of Israel’s existence.

But last Friday, Hamas officials said they would neither recognize Israel nor abide by earlier agreements.

“We will never recognize Israel,” Nizar Rayyan, a senior Hamas leader in Gaza, told Reuters. “There is nothing called Israel, neither in reality nor in the imagination.”

Another spokesman confirmed this view.

“The recognition is not an option at all, is not discussable,” Ismail Rudwan told Reuters and AFP.

Olmert, addressing a delegation from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on Feb. 6, said Israel “will not accept any departure” from the international community’s principles for dealing with Hamas.

On Sunday, however, Olmert signaled some flexibility at his weekly Cabinet meeting.

“Israel neither rejects nor accepts the agreements,” he said. “At this stage we, like the international community, are learning what exactly was achieved and what was said.”

At least a few of the 17 Jewish leaders arrived at the State Department armed with hard questions about Rice’s planned summit with Olmert and Abbas.

“There was an effort to kind of draw her out on what her intentions were on what she was trying to accomplish,” said Jess Hordes, Washington director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Rice apparently reassured these leaders.

“She made it clear that the direction and discussion will be more determined by Abbas and Olmert,” said one participant, who confessed that Rice’s charms led him to abandon a question he had prepared about Abbas’ strength given his failure to confront terrorists.

Rice was most persuasive when she recounted a Rome meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and other international figures in August. Hundreds of civilians were dying in Lebanon during Israel’s war with Hezbollah, bombs were falling, but Rice remained steadfast: No cease-fire until an agreement on international peacekeepers was completed.

“You want to talk about pressure?” she said. “If I was going to cave, that’s when I would have caved.”

Talk of a “destination” hinted at an embrace of something the Bush administration has avoided for six years: A Clinton-style drive to work out the details of a final-status agreement in order to leapfrog interim accords that were never fulfilled.

But Rice made it clear that the “road map,” the internationally driven peace plan that in its first phases requires a Palestinian crackdown on terrorism and an Israeli freeze on settlement building, was still relevant. She now found it useful, however, to talk about the contours of a final agreement.

“Her notion was that she was not going to rush, that she wanted to see what room there was for moving forward,” Hordes said. “She wanted to explore what needs to be done to help establish a Palestinian state. Even if one was to get to know what the contours of that state were, it would not mean the Palestinians were ready to run it.”

Olmert, in his address to the Conference of Presidents, was blunt about where he saw the U.S. role in the negotiations.

“There will not be a trilateral process,” he said. “It will have to be a bilateral process because we believe that the only way to finally achieve something of value between us and the Palestinians is for them to come to terms with reality.”

It’s not yet clear how the United States will view the Fatah-Hamas agreement. Rice said she would not deal with Cabinet ministers from Hamas, but stopped short of stating that she would not deal with other parts of a P.A. government that includes Hamas.

The Quartet welcomed the proposal as a harbinger of calm, but reasserted the principles that would end Palestinian isolation.

The Palestinian agreement stipulates that Hamas will name nine Cabinet ministers and an additional three independents; Fatah will name six ministers and an additional two independents. Other factions will hold four seats, and Salam Fayyad, an independent admired in the West for his commitment to transparency, will reassume his post as finance minister. Hamas’ Ismail Hanniyeh will continue as prime minister.

Rice also forcefully addressed the U.S. determination to continue isolating Iran until it agrees to transparency about its nuclear program. She saw no point in otherwise dealing with the Iranian government.

“Every bad U.S. policy of the last 25 years has been focused on trying to find ‘moderates’ in Iran,” she said.

Rice appeared relaxed and engaged throughout the 45-minute meeting, participants said.

“She understood both the Jewish community’s significant concerns about Israel’s security and well-being in light of the threats from Iran and the conflict with the Palestinians, as well as the community’s abiding hopes that she can help facilitate a diplomatic breakthrough in the logjam between Israel and the Palestinians,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

In addition to Reform and the ADL, these groups were represented: Americans for Peace Now, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Agudath Israel of America, the Orthodox Union, American Friends of Lubavitch, American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, Hillel, United Jewish Communities, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Republican Jewish Coalition and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.

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