Condoleezza Rice wanted the Israelis and the Palestinians to set a schedule for advancing the peace process, but her own schedule interfered.
Palestinians and Israeli officials said they expected the U.S. secretary of state to visit the region next week to discuss deadlines for action drafted by two of her most trusted advisers — Dick Jones, the U.S. ambassador to Tel Aviv, and Gen. Keith Dayton, the chief U.S security liaison to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
The schedule, handed to the two sides in late April and leaked last week to the Israeli media, appeared ambitious: Israel would ease travel conditions for the Palestinians in time for Rice’s May 15 visit; the Palestinians would stop rocket fire from the Gaza Strip into Israel by June 21; Israel would set up a bus convoy between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip by July 1.
The proposed deadlines — and Rice’s rollback of them — underscore U.S. difficulties in trying to advance peace in the face of Palestinian terrorism and Israeli political crisis.
On May 4, when Ha’aretz first published excerpts from the document, Rice’s spokesman Tom Casey described the deadlines as merely “informal benchmarks.”
“It was intended as the basis for further discussions,” Casey said.
“It’s possible that she could make a stop in the Middle East on this trip, although I would not expect it,” he said.
What happened in a week?
For one thing, the Bush administration wants to give Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert time to recover from the Winograd Commission report that blasted his handling of last summer’s war against Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Olmert might lack the capital to make any bold moves, said Stephen Cohen, a Yale University professor and Israeli P! olicy Fo rum scholar who maintains extensive ties in the region.
“The challenge for the Olmert government comes not from Condi Rice but from the internal crisis of Israel’s democracy,” he said. Olmert survived three no-confidence motions this week.
A U.S. official said the Bush administration was still serious about a timetable for action, but recognized that this is not an opportune time.
“We know the sensibilities,” the official said, so the administration is waiting for “a constructive opening.”
That cannot come soon enough, said Philip Wilcox, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and the U.S. consul general in Jerusalem in the mid-1990s.
“‘There is a certain urgency for Israel and Palestine that these things be accomplished,” Wilcox said. “If the administration does not want to draw a marker, that’s not reassuring.”
The deadline proposal was itself “modest,” Wilcox said, characterizing it as “a gesture toward conflict management rather than conflict resolution.”
Americans For Peace Now wrote Rice urging her to make the trip as planned.
“Sustained, serious, high-level U.S. engagement and leadership are absolutely vital and should be based on a clear understanding of the U.S. national security interests at stake,” said the group’s letter sent Monday.
Israel is skeptical about Abbas’ ability to meet the June 21 deadline to end rocket fire. Instead of confronting Hamas, the terrorist group whose allies are behind the attacks, Abbas joined a coalition government with the group.
That led the Israelis to balk at their July 1 deadline for setting up the bus convoy. The Israeli security establishment sees it as a possible conduit for terrorists from Gaza to the West Bank, which is still relatively free of terrorist attacks.
Speaking last week before the revelation of the U.S. proposal, Sallai Meridor, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, said Israel supported U.S. efforts to arm forces! loyal t o Abbas as a way of containing Hamas. However, Israel wants assurances that Abbas forces won’t turn the guns they get on Israel, as they have in the past.
“It is not a risk-free enterprise for Israel,” he said.
Such risks were behind the decided lack of enthusiasm for the U.S. proposal in much of the pro-Israel community.
There is “absolutely no logic or justification for this plan, which in present circumstances can only lead to more Palestinian Arab terrorism and loss of innocent lives,” the Zionist Organization of America said in a statement. “The Israeli government should decisively and utterly reject this plan, and the ZOA also urges President Bush to disown it.”
Cohen, the IPF scholar, suggested the attitude expressed in the ZOA statement might also explain Rice’s step back from the deadlines.
“They don t want to do anything that will make it harder for the Republicans in the next election, so they immediately retreated from the notion that they applied pressure,” Cohen said. “They’re only going to do it to the point where it doesn’t lead to tensions with Israel or with the American Jewish community.”
Cohen said that if the peace process remains frozen, the pendulum of U.S. popular opinion could swing away from Israel and the Jewish state might eventually be blamed for frustrating a resolution to the conflict. Ultimately, he said, a less sympathetic president might force a solution less favorable to Israel.
“The failure of Jewish strategy is becoming more clear,” he said. “We wasted all these years of the strong support of Israel showed by Clinton and now Bush not giving the United States the space to move.”
Rice, Cohen said, is now facing the prospect “that she will be a secretary of state who achieved nothing.”
Not everyone agrees. Sometimes keeping things from deteriorating is a sign of success, said Meridor, who was giving his first press conference since becoming ambassador last November.
“The train not moving is still on the tracks, largely thanks to the efforts of the United States of America,” he said.