Jerusalem — Before the final press event of Condoleezza Rice’s latest four-day visit in the Middle East, stride piano blues piped into the room perked up a news conference hall half-full with journalists yawning at the early hour and the U.S.’s latest attempt at high profile Arab-Israeli diplomacy. Call it the shuttling secretary stomp.
The secretary of state spent her latest regional barnstorm pushing Washington’s Arab allies to spruce up an Arab League peace initiative and prodding Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas to meet regularly. They agreed to meet twice a month to discuss daily concerns, a modest accomplishment. It was Rice’s fourth visit to Israel in as many months, and the latest example of a sustained diplomatic push to make some headway on Arab-Israeli peace, even at the cost of distancing Washington more from Israel’s position. Rice’s new proactive diplomacy is likely to lead to a gap between Israel’s and the United States’ positions on talks, analysts caution. There was a sign of such a development toward the end of the shuttle mission, when Israeli television Channel 2 reported that Israel had balked at Rice’s proposal to serve as a go-between. “Here you have a potential disagreement” between the U.S and Israel, said Arie Kacowicz, a professor of international relations at Hebrew University. “She’s trying to distance herself from the Israeli view so the U.S. can reclaim its role as an honest broker.”
The professor said Rice’s repeated trips to the region recall the diplomatic immersion of predecessor Henry Kissinger in the Arab-Israeli peace process after the Yom Kippur War of 1973. “There is a strong sense of déjà vu,’’ Kacowicz said.
That approach is likely to undo somewhat the exceptionally strong relationship established between President Bush and former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, which culminated with the U.S. approval of Israel’s plan to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza. The unusual coziness, says Scott Lasensky, a fellow at the U.S. Peace Institute, was actually the result of three decades of coordination that gradually became more intimate. Following the second Sinai disengagement agreement between Egypt and Israel in 1975, the U.S. began informing Israel about its diplomatic positions to keep on the same page. By the 1991 Madrid Conference, the U.S. had begun clearing elements of policy with Israel, like the identity of the Palestinian delegation. And at the last Camp David conference, President Clinton agreed to go to bat for the Israeli positions offered by then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak. (Longtime Arab-Israel adviser Aaron Miller once described the U.S. role as “Israel’s lawyer.”)
Rice’s effort this week to serve as a go-between in separate bilateral talks on a “political horizon” — the latest phrase for final status issues — indicated a break with a more passive American approach of recent years.
“What it signals is that the U.S. is trying to design its own diplomacy,” said Lasensky. “In 2005 we were taking the Israeli disengagement initiative and making it succeed, and eventually connecting it to the peace process. Now we’re not waiting for Israel to take the lead. The U.S. is trying out its own strategies.” “This is a return to a more traditional role for the U.S., and a role which has more prospects for success,’’ he added. But with the political fundamentals stacked heavily against her initiative — a newly formed Palestinian unity government that doesn’t recognize Israel, uncontrolled violence in the West Bank and Gaza, the failure to free kidnapped Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit, and Prime Minister Olmert’s anemic public approval ratings — the best Rice can do is advocate gradualism.
She noted that the immediate goal is take small steps to build confidence on both sides, though she did call on Arab states, meeting this week in Saudi Arabia, to “begin reaching out to Israel — to reassure Israel that its place in the region will be more, not less, secure, by an end to the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state.”
Gidi Grinstein, president of the Reut Institute, a Tel Aviv think tank, said he saw differences between Israel and the U.S. on process, structure, and substance of the peace effort.
In addition to Israel’s discomfort with Rice as a go-between, there is a disagreement on how far talks with the Palestinians can go, he said. “The Americans are acting as if some progress can be made, and the Israelis are skeptical any progress be made with the present Palestinian leadership.”
Israel is also more reluctant to fully endorse the Arab League peace initiative, first floated in 2002, because it calls for the of return for Palestinian refugees; the U.S. is less troubled. Grinstein believes that neither the Palestinians, Israel nor the U.S. are ready to advance the peace process right now. Though Abbas talks about negotiations, he’ll be handicapped while the unity government with Hamas is picking up traction. Though Olmert needs negotiations to stay relevant, he doesn’t have the political strength to risk the compromises. The Americans, he says, still haven’t assigned a team to the Israeli-Palestinian talks, showing their priorities still lay elsewhere. But Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., advised against underestimating Rice’s seriousness. “Secretaries of state don’t invest their time in order to fail.”
Still, he said, “there is a dissonance between the genuine commitment to restart Arab-Israel diplomacy, if not a peace process, and the actual circumstances. It’s an uphill struggle, and the secretary and the whole process is at the bottom of the hill.”
Rice suggested that a conciliatory message to Israel from the Arab League, holding its summit this week, could break the ice in regional peace negotiations. But she also acknowledged that Bush’s goal of setting up a Palestinian state before the end of his term now seems like a long shot.
“Now, I can’t tell if you that will happen on our watch or not,” she said. “We’re going to put everything that we possibly can into making it happen."
Even though Rice has fallen short of producing substantive agreements after the latest round of shuttle diplomacy, she has succeeded, at least, in demonstrating the U.S. commitment to return to the active mediation of the in the past, analysts aid.
“It signals, ‘We are back in business and we are serious,’” said Hebrew University Professor Kacowicz.
“Those who want to see a solution want very much the involvement of the U.S. and Europe, but at the end of the day they can’t want it more than the sides.”