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Rice embraces Mideast errands

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ANNE GEARAN
May 5, 2008
— Seems no job's too small for Condoleezza Rice when it comes to the Middle East these days.

After initially resisting the idea, the top envoy for a Bush administration that once sniffed at Mideast peacemaking as a fool's game is shuttling between Israeli and Palestinian leaders and getting into nitty-gritty obstacles that have blocked progress and dimmed hopes for a peace deal this year.


It's been five months since President Bush heralded the first substantive peace talks between the two sides in more than seven years. Yet the secret talks have yielded no obvious successes, and the novelty has worn off.


Some of Bush's optimism that the U.S. could referee from the sidelines seems to have worn off too.


Rice left the region Monday without a clear accomplishment. She plans to return in less than two weeks.


Rice has made four trips to Jerusalem and the West Bank in those five months and with each visit her job gets less lofty but arguably more important. She's deep in the Mideast weeds now, tossing off jargon about roadblocks and checkpoints and asking for assessments of whether if Israel lifted this roadblock instead of that one it might help Palestinian farmers get vegetables to market.


"You may think to yourself, 'What in the world am I doing spending time on these things?'" Rice acknowledged Monday.


Those sort of detailed questions smothered Bush's first-term peace proposal, a step-by-step program called the "road map." Similar small-bore issues have undermined peace talks past, and every effort has ultimately foundered on a basic lack of trust or will.


"It's always been a system in which one side had a view, and the other side had, if not 180 degrees the opposite view, pretty close to it," Rice said, and it takes an objective monitor to sort things out.


This time, the United States has agreed to judge whether both sides are meeting their obligations under the road map, which says that Palestinians must disarm and corral militants while reforming a historically corrupt leadership. Israel agreed to stop new settlements on land the Palestinians claim for an eventual independent state and ease movement for Palestinians.


"The reason they both agreed there should be an impartial U.S. role is they could accept if the United States is saying, 'Here are the obligations you need to meet and here are the obligations you need to meet, and you have or have no met them,'" she said.


Bush and Rice reject previous administrations' conclusion that it will take the United States to write much or all of any workable peace deal, but Rice's analysis acknowledges a central and decisive role.


Rice sat first with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, then with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, then with Olmert for breakfast before she left on Monday. In between she saw numerous other officials on both sides and huddled with her own advisers, including an Air Force general named to oversee road map compliance on both sides. He's been making lists, and Rice told reporters she went over the findings with each side.


"I found it useful to go back and forth a little bit not to just do one meeting and have that be the end," Rice told reporters traveling with her.


Shuttle diplomacy got a bad name early in Bush's presidency, when advisers said it rarely amounted to much and made a superpower look small.


Perhaps more significant than her individual meetings, Rice has twice held sessions that included both Israelis and Palestinians, including one with the top negotiators for both sides. Hard to be more in the middle than that.


But time is running out and nerves are fraying, particularly on the Palestinian side.


Just after she left, a top aide to Abbas sharply criticized Rice and the administration for constant visits that produce no visible results.


"That's why there should be American pressure on Israel, instead of continuous visits and statements," the aide, Nabil Abu Rdeneh, said. "Settlements are continuing, the siege is continuing, and Israelis aren't serious enough."


Abbas aides said the Palestinian president is giving the negotiations two or three more months to produce progress. Abbas retains the option of walking away from the talks if he believes progress is impossible, Abu Rdeneh said.


In that case, "the president will take a dramatic decision, he'll inform the Palestinian people of the complete story of negotiations, and he'll take the right decision at the right moment," the aide said.


In some ways, Rice may be on a fool's errand.


The situation on the ground makes the goal of a deal by year's end look somewhat absurd, with the sides failing to enact basic trust-building measures necessary for negotiations to succeed.


Israel has failed to dismantle roadblocks, halt settlement activity, release Palestinian prisoners, take down illegal West Bank outposts and call off military raids in cities where Abbas is deploying his own forces.


The Palestinians, while stationing police in key cities to keep down crime gangs, have done little to dismantle what Israel calls "the terrorist infrastructure" of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.


The Israeli leader finds himself weakened by corruption scandals, including a new police investigation into alleged financial wrongdoing announced this past week. Abbas, too, has seen his popularity plummet because of the lack of visible progress, and the 73-year-old leader's health was called into question after he underwent a sudden heart test last week.


Bush has only a few months left in office making the goal of suddenly solving one of the world's most intractable problems look increasingly unrealistic.


Even if the parties could overcome these obstacles, the big elephant in the room is Hamas. The militants' control of the Gaza Strip makes implementing any peace deal extremely problematic. After Hamas capitalized on Israel's 2005 Gaza withdrawal to launch rocket attacks on southern Israel, the Jewish state is highly unlikely to evacuate any more territory unless it can be assured against a repeat.


Olmert himself has said no deal will be implemented until Abbas regains control of Gaza.



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