U.S. wants progress ahead of Annapolis

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sits down to dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem, Oct. 17, 2007.  (MATTY STERN / BPH IMAGES)

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sits down to dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem, Oct. 17, 2007. (MATTY STERN / BPH IMAGES)

WASHINGTON (JTA) – It’s an insistent counterpoint audible beneath the U.S. march toward confrontation with Iran: While pledging to stop the Islamic Republic from going nuclear, the Bush administration is determined to walk Israel toward peace with the Palestinians.

A battery of Israeli officials, in Israel and visiting the United States, heard the same message from an array of Bush administration officials: The United States stands with Israel on Iran, but expects some progress on Israel-Palestinian talks.

“We are in the most serious process in at least seven years to discuss all of the issues that can lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state,” U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Oct. 17 as she stood alongside her Israeli counterpart, Tzipi Livni.

Rice was in the region to promote the Bush administration’s plan to convene a peace conference in Annapolis, Md. next month. She wants the sides to come up with the parameters of a final status agreement prior to the meeting.

Israelis are resisting such specifics, fearing that the Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas is a long way from being able to ensure security in areas from which Israel would withdraw.

But it is specifics that the Bush administration wants.

“I am going to do everything that I can to help the parties as they try to come to understandings on a wide variety of issues, outstanding issues that have long been a part of the need to – that must be resolved if there is to be a Palestinian state,” Rice said.

She dismissed talk that the conference is in jeopardy, talk based on the lack of a formal announcement and on reports of wide gaps on issues such as territory, Jerusalem and refugees.

“The President has said this will take place in the fall,” she said. “There are two months left in the fall, November and December.” She added that she was determined for “the parties to show that there is a basis for movement forward.”

Rice has been focused on Palestinian statehood at least since she assumed the secretary of state mantle in 2005. What is remarkable about her recent effort is how other administration officials are now on the same page.

Israel and the pro-Israel lobby has long counted on Elliott Abrams, President Bush’s deputy national security adviser and peace process skeptic who usually has the last word on such issues. Yet it is Abrams and his boss, Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser, who are in Israel this week, precisely to make clear that Bush wants action ahead of Annapolis.

Bush made his position clear last week in a press conference.

“We believe that now is the time to push ahead with a meeting at which the Israelis and Palestinians will lay out a vision of what a state could look like,” he said. The Palestinians “need to see there’s a serious, focused effort to step up a state. And that’s important so that the people who want to reject extremism have something to be for.” He added, “The deal has to be good for the Palestinians, as well as the Israelis.”

Notably, a day after his remarks, Bush had a surprise meeting with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Barak has been one of the leading skeptics as Annapolis approaches.

There have been other signs of increased administration determination to make Palestinian statehood a reality. Robert Gates, the U.S. defense secretary, brought the issue up when he accepted an award last week from the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, one of the Jewish groups most reluctant to endorse Palestinian statehood.

Gates told JINSA members that stability in the Middle East required “a just and comprehensive peace between the Israeli and Palestinian people, including, as the President has said, a two-state solution.”

The same week, Nicholas Burns, Rice’s undersecretary for political affairs, addressed the annual American Task Force for Palestine annual dinner. His message endorsing a two-state solution was boilerplate; his language was not. He talked about the “extraordinary hardship” of Palestinians living under occupation, he talked about the “tragedy” of the refugees created by Israel’s 1948 Independence War.

More significantly, opening his remarks, he welcomed Afif Safieh as “Palestinian Authority ambassador.” Safieh is recognized as the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s office in Washington; he does not have ambassador status.

Also attending the ATFP event was U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the Middle East subcommittee in the U.S. House of Representatives and a friend of the pro-Israel lobby. In a sign that Israel is likely to hear the same pro-Palestinian state message from members of Congress, Ackerman and U.S.Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.), an Arab American, are recruiting colleagues to sign a letter urging Rice to accelerate funding for the Palestinian Authority as a means of bolstering the Annapolis conference.

Despite such pressures, Israel is getting relief on what it sees as the more pressing issue: Iran. In the Oct. 17 press conference, Bush made it clear how far he had traveled toward Israeli thinking. For the first time, Bush described nuclear know-how – not just the acquisition of weapons – as a red line.

Bush said he’s told other world leaders that “if you’re interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.”

Until now, there has been a gap between Israel and the United States on when Iran might cross the nuclear danger line.

Israel says the moment will come when the Iranians know how to build a bomb, which might be as early as next year. Until Bush’s comments, the Americans had set Iran’s capacity to build a bomb – within three to ten years – as the deadline for possible military action.

Vice President Dick Cheney also intimated a military approach unless Iran rolls back a nuclear program that the Islamic Republic insists is peaceful.

Addressing a retreat of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank, over the weekend, Cheney warned, “The Iranian regime needs to know that if it stays on its present course, the international community is prepared to impose serious consequences. The United States joins other nations in sending a clear message: We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.”

Such pronouncements are welcomed by Israeli leaders and have fueled their intensified lobbying across the globe to tighten sanctions against Iran as a means of heading off a military option.

But even Cheney – like Abrams, a redoubt of skepticism regarding the Palestinians – made clear in his speech that he is on board with the Annapolis plan.

“George W. Bush is the first President to call for a two-state solution, with Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and security,” he said. The Annapolis meeting, he added, would help “move forward on the path to a Palestinian state. Secretary Rice just made her most recent journey to the Middle East to lay the groundwork to support movement toward the establishment of such a state.”

Notably, Cheney cast Rice’s trip in the context of U.S. efforts to rally regional support to shore up pro-western forces in Iraq – and head off the Iranian challenge.

Israeli visitors to the United States, including a delegation from the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Trade and Industry Minister Eli Yishai and Finace Minister Roni Baron have heard the same message, one likely to be repeated in coming weeks when Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter and Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz arrive. Mofaz leads the Israeli team in the Israeli-U.S. strategic dialogue.

Not all of the Israelis are sanguine about the prospects at Annapolis. Yishai said he told Rice that if Jerusalem emerges at the conference as a final status issue, his Shas Party will leave the government, which could mortally weaken Ehud Olmert’s premiership.

Yossi Beilin, the Meretz leader who was on the Knesset committee delegation, said he welcomed any activity after what he said was seven years of little real effort, but he warned the parties to tread carefully.

Expectations were running high, he said. “If it fails,” he said, “it could be a huge disaster, leading to violence.”

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