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For U.S. Secretary of State, It Always Comes Back to Gaza

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For the U.S. secretary of state, it keeps coming back to Gaza.

Condoleezza Rice, who saw Gaza come under the control of Hamas after she pressed for an Israeli withdrawal in 2005 and then elections in 2006, is now watching the unruly strip of Mediterranean coastline unravel her much vaunted relaunching of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Rice was blitzing the region this week urging Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt to cobble together a way to keep the fighting from entirely shutting down peace talks.

“I’m going to have discussions with the parties about how we try to keep this process going, given that obviously there are going to be spoilers and there are going to be rejectionists,” Rice said Monday on her flight out of Washington.

“But if the rejectionists are allowed to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, then that is not going to serve the interest of the Palestinian people. So I’m hopeful that we can get through this current situation and get back to negotiations.”

Her efforts may be hampered not only by the realities of the region but by her disagreements with the White House over who is to blame.

Bush’s spokesman squarely blamed the crisis on Gaza’s Hamas rulers, while Rice appealed to both sides for quiet.

“We have a clear message,” Gordon Johndroe, the White House spokesman, said Monday. “The Palestinian people have a choice to make. It’s a choice between terrorism or a choice between a political solution that leads to a Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel.

“The No. 1 thing that has to happen is Hamas has got to stop targeting Israeli citizens with rockets. It must stop.”

By contrast, Rice was more equivocal.

“Hamas needs to stop firing rockets into Israeli cities,” she said. “Israelis have to be very concerned about the innocent people in Gaza who get caught in this crossfire, and Israelis need to be very concerned about the humanitarian situation.”

It echoed the bickering in 2006 that hampered the United States brokering an end to the war with Hezbollah on Israel’s border with Lebanon. The White House at the time stood squarely behind Israel, while Rice pressed Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government to tamp down its response to the Hezbollah cross-border raid that launched the war.

Hamas and its allies have rocketed Israeli cities with unprecedented intensity in recent days, further beleaguering the long-suffering town of Sderot just north of the border and now reaching Ashkelon, a major city of 120,000 people.

More than 100 Palestinians have been killed. Israeli and Palestinian spokesmen disagree as to whether most were combatants, but the number includes about half a dozen children. One Israeli civilian was killed in a rocket attack and two Israeli soldiers died in combat.

Mahmoud Abbas, the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority president and erstwhile enemy of Hamas, shut down talks with Israel because of the fighting, but on Tuesday signaled a readiness to resume them.

“I call on the Israeli government to halt its aggression so that the necessary environment can be created to make negotiations succeed, for us and for them, and to reach the shores of peace in 2008,” Abbas said Tuesday following talks with Rice in Ramallah.

“We have reaffirmed more than once that peace and negotiations are our strategic choice.”

It was not immediately clear from Abbas’ comments when he might agree to meet Olmert again.

Rice, who arrived in Israel hours earlier, was due to leave Wednesday after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

Sources say the Israelis are frustrated by Rice’s attempts at evenhandedness in the current crisis. She wants Israel to show progress on its pledge to freeze settlements as a way to draw Abbas back into the process.

The Israelis counter that settlements are hardly the issue as Gaza, evacuated of settlers and troops in 2005, again assumes its pre-1967 sobriquet as a dagger pointed at the heart of Israel.

On the other hand, the Israelis — and Abbas and the Egyptians, bordering Gaza to the south — are hoping Rice offers a way out of the crisis.

Israel’s blockade of the strip in January, aimed at stemming the rocket fire, apparently has backfired. It helped precipitate a breach of Gaza’s border with Egypt, which according to Israeli intelligence led to an influx of the Iranian-manufactured rockets that are now reaching Ashkelon.

David Makovsky, a senior analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank, said the unraveling underscored how important Gaza is to the process relaunched by Rice during talks last November in Annapolis, Md.

“Gaza is not so much a distraction but almost the core of keeping Annapolis from moving forward,” he told JTA. “Gaza is becoming a cautionary tale for Israelis. It’s becoming, ‘You didn’t like the book in Gaza, why see the movie in the West Bank?’ “

That should have been clear at Annapolis, Makovsky said.

“It’s popular to think of Gaza as a sideshow,” he said, “but it isn’t a side show.”

Makovsky said the disjointed Bush administration approach, seemingly lacking coordination, did not help.

“This goes to a broader question of U.S. engagement,” he said. “These trips could give an illusion of involvement without tackling a problem that has multiple solutions.”

One near-term fix advocated by all sides is closer military coordination between Egypt and Israel to keep the Gaza-Egypt border from blowing open again.

The problem for the Israelis is that the Egyptians also want to hold out to Hamas the carrot of reopened trade lines with Israel, which Israel rejects as long as the terrorist group refuses to embrace prior Palestinian peace commitments.

The deterioration has also thrown groups that backed the peace process into a confused flux, retreating from unanimous backing for the Annapolis process.

The Israel Policy Forum and Americans for Peace Now both released statements urging the Bush administration and Israel to engage with Hamas toward the cease-fire that a majority of Israelis favor, with the Israel Policy Forum suggesting third-party negotiations and Peace Now advocating either indirect or direct contact with Hamas.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee instead focused on Abbas, accusing the relative moderate of stoking the flames instead of tamping them down.

In a statement, AIPAC expressed “grave concern” about his suspension of peace talks, noting that it “comes just days after disturbing reports that Abbas said he would not rule out future violence against the Jewish state.”

The AIPAC statement continued: “Abbas’ decision to pull out of negotiations with Israel, combined with his apparent willingness to endorse future violence, indicates a wholesale rejection of both fundamental conditions.

“It is our hope that Abbas will clarify his recent remarks and return to the negotiating table. Israel must be permitted to take steps to defend its people and will face insurmountable difficulty in brokering a deal with a Palestinian Authority that glorifies terrorism.”

(Israel correspondent Roy Eitan in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)

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