At the end of next week U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will return to Jerusalem and Ramallah for another "babysitting" excursion culminating in a triangular meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
Rice's trip will be accompanied by vocal pronouncements about resuming the peace process. Olmert's aides, Yoram Turbowicz and Shalom Turgeman, left for Europe yesterday for preparatory talks for Rice's visit with White House envoys David Welch and Elliott Abrams.
However, neither President George Bush nor Prime Minister Olmert is enthusiastic about all this activity, which they see as a futile move leading nowhere. Bush and Olmert object to their respective foreign ministers, Rice and Tzipi Livni's joint initiative to begin negotiations over a Palestinian state before carrying out the first step in the road map. At this stage the Palestinians are supposed to dismantle the terror organizations, and Israel must evacuate the illegal settlers' outposts in the West Bank.
Livni believes that resuming the negotiations will provide the moderate Palestinians, headed by Abbas, with a "political horizon" and strengthen them versus Hamas. Livni and her aides were heartened by the Quartet's inserting the term "political horizon" into its statement last Friday, seeing it as a reflection of Rice's support for the idea.
But unlike Abbas, who wants to discuss a final-status agreement, Livni believes the sides are not ripe for such a discussion and could pay a dear price for the talks' failure, as they did after the Camp David talks of summer 2000. She therefore proposes at this stage discussing the outlines of a Palestinian state within temporary borders.
Rice declared during her visit last month that the road map need not be an obstacle to progress and said she had persuaded Olmert to conduct "informal" negotiations with Abbas. Like Livni, Rice said it was too early to discuss final-status issues - borders, refugees and Jerusalem.
The White House regards Rice's optimism with contempt. Bush is up to his neck with Iraq and to a lesser extent with Iran. He has no interest in getting involved with Israel and the Palestinians. His aides have come to understand by now that during Bush's term no Palestinian state will be set up next to Israel, and the president's vision will not be realized.
According to the Rice-Livni initiative, the talks would be conducted separately from the road map, and establishing the Palestinian state would be conditioned on dismantling the terror groups.
Bush has good reason to let Rice carry on with the political process. First, the Egyptians and Saudis are pressuring Washington to show progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front. Second, Washington believes that American activism would keep away less friendly parties, like European mediators, who would only annoy Israel and the Americans.
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