The Middle East awaits Rice
Expectations in the Middle East are for practical steps that will make tangible that Bush and Rice understand the severity of the situation and the urgency of dealing with it.
George W. Bush will be inaugurated today in Washington for his second and last term as president of the United States. He has staffed the uppermost echelons of his administration with loyalists who know his methods of operation and agree with his main policies, and his second administration, supported by Republican control over Congress, is expected to bear the president's personal stamp.
The most important appointment in his new team is the promotion of Condoleezza Rice from national security advisor to secretary of state. Over the past four years, Rice has been in an important, albeit behind-the-scenes position in the White House, behind Bush and his vice president, Richard Cheney, part of the combative school that included Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Heading the State Department and the moderate minority was Colin Powell, whose worldwide prestige was not enough to tilt Bush in his direction. Now, as the most senior secretary in Bush's administration, Rice will be the navigator to the president's pilot.
Rice's testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the hearings this week show that the Middle East, after September 11, 2001, will continue to be the focus of American foreign and defense policy. Seemingly that is good news for those who believe that active involvement by the administration is necessary, expressed in energetic personal involvement by the president and secretary of state, in an effort to calm the tensions between Israel and the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular.
During his first term in office, Bush pushed the issue of peace between Israel and the Palestinians (and the Syrians) to a low level on the American order of priorities. Now, too, it seems that Bush and Rice are placing a higher priority on Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and the spread of democracy in the region, including allies like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. If so, that approach is to be regretted. The bloodletting in the conflict between Jerusalem and Ramallah, between Sderot and Beit Hanoun, cannot wait for a solution to all the problems in Southeast Asia.
The two key documents in Bush and Rice's policy are the president's speech of June 24, 2002 and his commitment to Ariel Sharon on April 14, 2004. The road map drafted by Powell and his partners from Europe, Russia and the UN is less important, though Rice made sure to express hope for a deepening of the connection with NATO and the European Union.
The equation Rice waved about in front of the senators and the rulers and nations of the region was "justice, dignity and a viable, independent and democratic state for the Palestinians; peace and security for Israel." As an overall vision that is reasonable, but the test will be in its fulfillment as the two states move toward concessions on their mutual demands regarding territories and borders, enabling them to establish thriving societies and economies with a demographic balance.
Rice evaded the issue of appointing a presidential envoy to the region. She is aware of her responsibility, along with the president's, to prevent neglect and a deterioration of the situation. Expectations in the Middle East are for practical steps that will make tangible that Bush and Rice understand the severity of the situation and the urgency of dealing with it.