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Rice short on results in Mideast

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to take more concrete steps to ease the lives of West Bank Palestinians during a meeting in his Jerusalem office on May 5, 2008. (Matty Stern/BPH Images)

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to take more concrete steps to ease the lives of West Bank Palestinians during a meeting in his Jerusalem office on May 5, 2008. (Matty Stern/BPH Images)

WASHINGTON (JTA) – Condoleezza Rice keeps talking about building peace and a Palestinian state in the Middle East, but she’s still short on the building materials.

The U.S. secretary of state’s most recent foray into Middle East shuttle diplomacy produced many of the same pledges of progress and warnings of what its absence would bring – but few tangible results.

Rice was preparing the ground for President Bush’s visit to the region next week. Concerned with his Middle East legacy, Bush is eager for success on the Israeli-Palestinian front, particularly given the situation in Iraq.

After attending some celebrations for Israel’s 60th birthday, Bush will join Palestinian and Egyptian leaders at a summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik; Israel has yet to confirm its attendance.

Such a commitment was not forthcoming even after Rice’s visit, and the vagueness of the entire peacemaking enterprise was starkly evident at her news conference Sunday in Ramallah with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

A reporter asked Rice if she had extracted commitments from Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, to remove West Bank roadblocks.

“I raised the issue of qualitative improvements, not just quantitative metrics, with both” – Israelis and Palestinians – “and I have had since a discussion of it with Defense Minister Barak because, of course, a lot of this falls in his area of responsibility,” Rice said. “And as to the question of what we will be able to do to address these qualitative issues, I think that this agreement, that we’d go back and take a look at ways to really have a clear sense of what the qualitative effect is, that is, the significance of any improvement and movement – on movement and access – for the lives of Palestinian people.”

Translation: Rice won’t know if life is improving for Palestinians until after it’s improved.

Therein lies an asymmetry that is key to why the process is going nowhere, according to Shoshana Bryen, the director of special projects for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.

Israelis naturally are reluctant to make the concessions Rice demands because she is asking them to give up tangibles – roadblocks, land, allowing Palestinians to carry weapons – in exchange for an intangible: peace.

“She’s looking for concrete successes to build on concrete successes, but what the Israelis want is not concrete,” Bryen said. “The Palestinians say, ‘We want a state.’ Israelis say, ‘We want peace.’”

Israel may give up roadblocks – plans to remove one near Hebron were announced after Rice left – but it wants to see if it is compensated in kind.

Israeli officials are not at all confident that Abbas and his government have what it takes to contain challenges from extremists. Abbas has lost control of the Gaza Strip to Hamas, a designated terrorist group, and in the West Bank, a fledgling 600-person police force has just begun to deploy.

Some western officials insist the force is ready, but others say it isn’t much better trained than the Abbas loyalists who were driven out of Gaza last summer by Hamas’ stronger fighters.

Israeli officials vacillate between bolstering Abbas’ force and holding back from giving the Palestinian force too much power. Israel facilitated the force’s training in Jordan, but it prevented some arms and materiel from reaching the troops.

Without such a force, Abbas’ officials say, they cannot reasonably be expected to meet their obligations to establish security. Additionally, to make their case against public support for Hamas, Abbas’ loyalists need to show the Palestinians that negotiations produce results, especially in freezing settlement expansion.

“We have, as Palestinians, security obligations,” Saeb Erekat, a top negotiator, said in an address to the Palestine Center think tank April 25 – after Abbas had met in Washington with Bush. “We have to work on maintaining the rule of law, the one authority, the one gun, ending chaos and restlessness.

“We’re moving in this direction. I’m not saying we’ve completed it, but we are moving in this direction – while the Israelis have an obligation to stop settlement activity, including natural growth, and dismantling settlement outposts created since March 2001.”

Another factor frustrating progress is the perilous political fortunes of Israel’s government.

Aside from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s legal troubles, which some say could result in his resignation, top ministers are breaking with Olmert on policy.

Barak resists Olmert’s calls to remove roadblocks; Public Security Minister Avi Dichter has come out against a proposed Egyptian-brokered cease-fire with Hamas; and Shaul Mofaz, the top strategic negotiator with the United States, told his American interlocutors last week that Olmert’s hopes of a deal with Syria were unfounded.

“All sorts of developments on the Israeli political front are casting a shadow on good-faith efforts,” said Ori Nir, an analyst with Americans for Peace Now. “Even if they are pursuing some kind of a plan, along comes another domestic scandal and casts a huge shadow on it.”

Rice’s deputy, John Negroponte, said last week that Rice is committed to the process until Bush’s final days in office. And Rice, as part of an administration notorious for extracting rosy outlooks from the most dire of situations, is suggesting that failure now could portend disaster later.

“I do believe that the window for the two-state solution will not be forever open,” she told reporters on her way to London, picking up on a theme she sounded last week at the American Jewish Committee’s annual Washington conference. “I think you could argue that it has – it’s gotten narrower and narrower over time.”

That ticking clock might be nudging the United States into areas the Bush administration would have considered off limits until recently.

On May 2, the Quartet grouping of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, which guides the peace process, formally approved Egyptian efforts to broker a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. The result was that for the first time, the United States signed off on recognizing Hamas as a negotiator.

This was Rice’s fourth visit to the region since the United States re-launched Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at Annapolis, Md., last November. Nir said such dedication is commendable, but more is required if the deadline set at Annapolis to achieve a peace deal by the end of 2008 is to be met.

Nir suggested that negotiators and monitors in the region enforce a timetable.

“It’s time to put together an actual strategy, not just crank up the peace process each time the president comes to town – to have a strategy of what each side would do, with benchmarks,” Nir said.

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