People who spoke to United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her visit this week were impressed by her determination to invest the remainder of her tenure in promoting a "two-state solution" for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The triple handshake she produced with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, which was reminiscent of the old peace ceremonies at the White House, says something about the magnitude of her aspirations. Like her predecessors, Rice has been captivated by the strange enchantment of Middle Eastern diplomacy, and according to her acquaintances she too is frustrated by the abyss that gapes between the obvious solution and the tremendous difficulty of achieving it.
There is no doubt that Rice has personal, political and strategic interests in her frequent trips to the Middle East. She wants an achievement that can be chalked up to her credit. It's good for her to get away from the troubles in Iraq and to appear as a peacemaker at a time when her colleagues in the administration are busy with war. She has to show that she is doing something for the Palestinians, in order to placate Saudi Arabia and Egypt and harness them to the front against Iran. And even though she does not talk about this in public, she sees putting an end to the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state as a moral imperative. In closed conversations, Rice has used imagery from the racist American South where she grew up.
But with no connection to her motivations, Rice's activity is welcome. She is demonstrating that even after years of intifada, and in face of political complications in the PA and a shaky government in Israel, America has not yet despaired of the chances of resolving the conflict. And even if the final-status solution seems to be beyond imagining, and neither Israelis nor Palestinians have even the strength for a partial deal, there is value to the American secretary of state's babysitting. Had it not been for her visit, Olmert would have found it even harder to stand up to Defense Minister Amir Peretz, Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman and the Israel Defense Forces' top brass, who are trying to drag him into an extensive military operation in the Gaza Strip.
Contrary to popular opinion, which accuses the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush of shoulder-shrugging, if not neglect, Bush has done a great deal to create conditions for a future agreement. His critics may be nostalgic for his predecessor, Bill Clinton, who knew every alley in Jerusalem by heart. But Clinton, with all his efforts, did not achieve anything and the summit he ran at Camp David led to disaster. The bleeding reality he bequeathed to Bush left zero space for diplomatic entrepreneurship.
The Bush administration's main contribution, under Rice's leadership, has been to root the idea of the Palestinian state in the international mind, and in the shaping of that state's future borders. The previous administrations tended to grumble about the Jewish settlements in the territories as "an obstacle to peace," but did very little to stop them. Bush and Rice forced former prime minister Ariel Sharon to freeze construction in the settlements beyond the separation fence in the West Bank and pushed him to withdraw to the Green Line (the pre-Six Day War border). Their close supervision has prevented Israel from building the controversial E-1 neighborhood near Ma'aleh Adumim, and only recently the Americans stopped Peretz's new settlement in the Jordan Valley.
The Bush letter of April 2004 presented the outline of a future agreement on two of the three core issues: The border will be approximately congruent to the separation fence, with exchanges of territory, and the refugees will be absorbed into Palestine and not by Israel. The cessation of the pressures against the fence and against construction within the settlement blocs has translated the vague language of the Bush letter into physical reality.
The greatest failure of Bush and Rice has been in the marketing of their policy to the world, where they have been depicted as blind supporters of Israel and as unfair mediators. They have also failed in their attempt to persuade Israel to soften the economic siege on the Palestinians and in having pushed for the Palestinian elections that brought Hamas to power.
Rice believes that in the long term the participation of Hamas in the political fray will soften the movement and strengthen the public base of the Palestinian regime. In the present reality, however, the outcome of the elections has stalled any progress.
This week Rice learned that in the Middle East there aren't good guys and bad guys, and that any alliance is good for its moment. The moderates of yesterday join up with extremists today, as in the Mecca agreement between Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Mashal. One can guess that Rice was angry at Abbas, but she wiped the spit off her face and promised that she would be back soon for another round of visits. And if only for this, she deserves a kind word, even if it is hard for her to show real results.
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