When Condoleezza Rice talks about the establishment of a Palestinian state next to Israel, she sees in her mind's eye the struggle of African Americans for equal rights, which culminated in the period of her Alabama childhood.
Rice is very aware of political sensitivity, and avoids making such comparisons in public speeches and interviews, where she keeps to the official list of talking points. But in private, she talks about the segregated buses of her childhood.
One can guess that the settlements, the checkpoints and the separation fences created by Israel on the West Bank bring back unpleasant memories of Jim Crow racial separation in the South. Her empathy for the suffering of the Palestinians under occupation goes beyond the strict interests of the administration in promoting the status of the United States in the Middle East and has the touch of her personal experience.
Rice was one year old when Rosa Parks, a heroine of the struggle for equal rights in the U.S., refused to yield her seat on a city bus to a white passenger. This was in Montgomery, Alabama, a 90-minute ride from Titusville, the Birmingham suburb where the future secretary of state was raised. Rosa Parks' "No" catalyzed the struggle against Jim Crow and brought to greatness a young minister who had recently become co-pastor of Birmingham's Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin Luther King, Jr.
For Rice, King's greatness lay in his insistence on nonviolent public protest, even when the mood in America was on fire. King's life was ended by an assassin's bullet, but the mass movement that he led earned impressive achievements. Rice's impressive career expressed the new opportunities that were opened to young African Americans in the wake of the struggle of their parents' generation in the 1950s and 1960s.
Now, Rice is comparing Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayad, to Martin Luther King. Abbas is committed to the struggle for Palestinian independence, and like Abbas he is opposed to terror and violence. Just as Tony Blair, the Quartet envoy and former British prime minister, compares the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, so does Rice recall the struggle for civil rights in the United States when she speaks about the Palestinian boy who needs new hope instead of aspiring to commit a suicide attack.
Rice's current visit to the Middle East is one of the most important in her term as secretary of state, perhaps the most important. She wants to leave Jerusalem in two days with an understanding of the nature of the joint Israeli-Palestinian declaration that will be presented in the run-up to the Annapolis summit next month. Even before she left Washington she knew the parties were cooking up a crisis for her: the Palestinians with rigid demands, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with a demonstration of political weakness.
But Rice cannot back out: She persuaded President George W. Bush to announce the summit on July 16, and now she has to produce results. Critics say the summit is premature and has created unrealistic expectations that are sure to be dashed. If she fails, Hamas could bring down Abbas and take control of the West Bank. The blame would be laid at Rice's door.
The Americans want the summit to start on November 26, two weeks later than originally planned because of the difficulty in formulating the joint declaration. The latest acceptable period is the first week of December. Invitations will not be sent out until Abbas and Olmert can agree on the agenda.
The potential guest list includes the members of the G-8, the Quartet, the Arab League Monitoring Committee (including Syria), other Arab states and Muslim states such as Turkey. Washington currently does not believe that Saudi Arabia will come because the declaration of principles shaping up will not meet its minimum demands. But the door is still open because their attendance is very important to Olmert.
Rice is maintaining a high profile on this visit, meeting with important cabinet ministers and giving an interview to Channel 1 Television. Tonight she will play hostess for about 20 respected Israeli figures at a rare dinner. There is no doubt that she wants to draw her own impressions of the political situation in Israel, or at least to appear interested and ready to listen.
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