WASHINGTON (JTA) – As Condoleezza Rice prepares for what could be the make-or-break event of her career – the upcoming Israeli-Palestinian summit – a new book is raising questions about the U.S. secretary of state’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other Middle East issues.
“The Confidante” (St. Martin’s Press, 304 pp, $25.95), by the Washington Post diplomatic correspondent Glenn Kessler, has earned rave reviews for depicting Rice’s delicate balance between her friendship with Bush and the demands of the international community.
Kessler has traveled the world as part of Rice’s press entourage, and he provides a blow-by-blow and sometimes devastating account of her foreign policy decisions. Middle East watchers will be especially interested in his sharp criticism of several of Rice’s judgment calls pertaining to the region, including her promotion of elections that ended up bringing terrorist organizations to power.
Rice clearly had designs on the role of top U.S. diplomat as early as 2002, when she was Bush’s national security adviser and Colin Powell was secretary of state, often shoving him aside in dealing with the Israelis and Palestinians during the second intifada.
Upon taking the job in 2005, she was seen as a Bush loyalist who often had leaned toward those in the administration pressing a hawkish line on Iraq, Iran and the spread of democracy.
But on at least one point, Rice watchers say, the secretary of state has moved away from the neoconservative article of faith that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not central to the stability of the Middle East. The result has been an increasing push from Rice for a greater U.S. role in facilitating peace talks and boosting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
“She has really evolved in her views,” M.J. Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum told JTA. “She used to be fairly predictable as a Bush spokesman on this issue, but now she’s absolutely determined to reach an agreement. She wants it to be her legacy. I think she has real empathy for both the Palestinians and the Israelis.”
Rice was back in the region over the weekend, meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in an effort to lay the groundwork for the summit that is expected to take place at some point in the next six weeks in Annapolis, Md.
Abbas had been threatening to boycott over Israeli and American efforts to postpone any specific statement of principles to future negotiations, but was sounding a more conciliatory tone after his meeting with Rice.
In his book, Kessler details Rice’s early skepticism of Bush’s “road map,” an effort to bring about Palestinian statehood and end Palestinian terrorism. Israeli officials tell Kessler that Rice assured them that it was “at best a marginal plan” that would not get much U.S. attention ahead of the 2004 elections. She asked the Israelis to come up with a better plan, and Ariel Sharon’s government responded by proposing the removal of Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip. Rice pushed the Israelis further.
“It is not any sort of political breakthrough,” she reportedly told the Israelis. “If you want a different reality, it has to be Gaza in its entirety.”
In retrospect, critics say, that was exactly the wrong plan. Had Sharon stuck to his original proposal to evacuate Gaza’s 8,000 settlers, but left behind troops, he likely would have scored a triumph over the settler movement unadulterated by the Hamas stronghold Gaza has become, barraging southern Israel daily with rockets and inhibiting popular Israeli support for further concessions.
Abbas was elected P.A. president in early 2005, and his relative moderation appeared to meet the new secretary’s criteria for a new partner for peace. Kessler, however, said Rice expressed much skepticism about the Palestinian leader.
“She thought Abbas was a nice man but ineffective,” Kessler wrote. “The United States had invested in him, she thought, and he seemed incapable of delivering.”
Samar Assad of the Palestine Center in Washington believes that while Rice and Abbas have a cordial relationship, it lacks the personal warmth of her relationships with Israeli leaders.
“I don’t think it’s gone beyond professional,” Assad told JTA.
At the same time, he added, Rice “seems to be, from the Palestinian point of view, a secretary of state that listens more to Palestinians and their grievances.”
Kessler believes that Abbas’ plan to invite Hamas to participate in legislative elections in 2006 was both a calculated play to U.S. zeal for democracy in the Middle East and a flawed judgment call by Rice and others in the administration who underestimated the terrorist group’s popularity.
Other experts on the push for Gaza elections believe Rice’s role was a limited one.
“That idea came completely from Bush and Natan Sharansky,” the Israeli politician, Rosenberg said. “Bush totally signed on to that idea of going for democracy in every situation. I think she had a much more nuanced position, but she wasn’t the person that made that decision.”
For other analysts, the decision to go forward with P.A. elections was part of a wider – and seriously flawed – worldview.
“The biggest part of the problem the administration has is that many inside the State Department have become more focused on their legacy than on principles,” Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute said. “There’s no question that people in the administration lied to themselves about what was going to happen. If you admit that there’s going to be an undesirable outcome, then you have to do something about it.”
It didn’t help, Kessler writes, that Rice had played a role in botching the implementation of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza: No plans had been implemented for border crossings from Gaza, and Palestinians who had fought for control of greenhouses there watched as their harvest rotted with no way to export it to the outside world.
All this, Kessler argues, helped set the stage for the Hamas victory in January 2006.
Larry Garber, who had worked as a U.S. Agency for International Development director in the Palestinian areas and now directs the New Israel Fund, believes Rice’s problem with follow-up has been endemic through several administrations.
“I think she tried to work it out, but like many of these issues, you don’t just solve the issue,” Garber said. “There’s lots of need for follow-up, and clearly it’s important for her to play a dominant role. It’s not just her. Other people have the sense that you bang some heads and get everyone to agree, celebrate and assume it’s going to work out as planned.”
Kessler’s book is also highly critical of Rice’s role in ending the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon in the summer of 2006.
Kessler argues that Rice waited far too long to respond to the conflict and described her efforts as “drive-by diplomacy” that didn’t include either Syria or opposition candidates within Lebanon. He said Rice was ridiculed in the international press for describing the conflict as “the birth pangs of the new Middle East” and waiting seven days to fly to Beirut.
Rice thwarted early cease-fire efforts that did not call for a total disarming of Hezbollah. So diplomats were surprised to find that the final draft of the U.N. Security Council resolution that ended the conflict, sticky with Rice’s fingerprints, was rife with vague language and compromises similar to those she had rejected before scores of Israelis and hundreds of Lebanese lost their lives.
Kessler quotes John Bolton, then the U.S. envoy to the United Nations, as describing the resolution as “a pile of crap.”
Bolton, whose own book, “Surrender is Not An Option,” is due to be released this month, would not comment at length on the negotiations due to a publisher’s embargo. He told JTA that one of his major frustrations with Resolution 1701 was the refusal of many Arab nations to insist that Hezbollah be disarmed before an agreement was reached.
“The Arab League just wouldn’t buy the resolution we drafted. A lot of changes were made,” he said. “It’s clear that 1701 not only has not been implemented, but things we planned never came to pass. The process we envisioned hasn’t succeeded. There clearly has been a rearming of Hezbollah.”
Hezbollah was a part of the Lebanese government at the time it unilaterally launched the war against Israel. Kessler believes that the continued dominance of militia groups in the Middle East is the result of the overarching problem with the way Rice and the Bush administration have conducted American foreign policy and insisted on democracy in the region.
“Ironically, in the two most liberal societies in the Middle East – the Palestinian territories and Lebanon – militia groups had been voted into the governments,” he writes. “The influence and rise of Hamas and Hezbollah directly affected the way the United States was seen in the region: on the defensive and in decline.”