After Rice / Creeping Back to the Unilateral

Condoleezza Rice yesterday ended another disappointing trip into the diplomatic minefield of the Middle East.

In her closing statement, Rice maneuvered between the adamant refusal of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to discuss a final status agreement with the Palestinians and her desire to come home from this trip with some sort of achievement.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni proposed a compromise: Rice will talk to both sides about the "character of the future Palestinian state" without touching the sensitive issues of permanent borders, Jerusalem and the refugees.

Olmert's flexibility could be measured in millimeters. His bi-weekly talks with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas will not deal only with security and Palestinian humanitarian issues, but will also discuss "a diplomatic horizon," a non-binding, empty formula.

Olmert is not afraid of Rice. He perceives that President George W. Bush, concerned with domestic affairs, is willing to let Rice venture on her shuttle diplomacy; if she solves the conflict and a Palestinian state is established, he will cut the ribbon and host the ceremonies. But Rice's freedom has its limitations. Bush is not allowing her to pressure Israel's prime minister.

The assumption that nothing will come of the Olmert-Abbas bi-weekly meetings has brought convergence back into the picture. "The world" will not let Israel preserve the status quo in the territories - the settlements and the roadblocks - using the excuse that there is no one to talk to and nothing to discuss.

Some in Washington wonder why Israel does not institute a voluntary evacuation-compensation program in the West Bank settlements. They see Olmert is too weak to evacuate settlements, but he can start moving in that direction.

Calls are being heard to reexamine convergence. Minister Rafi Eitan spoke of partial convergence. The policy think-tank Reut wrote this week that the unilateral option is back on the agenda following the formation of the Palestinian unity government.

For starters, Reut proposes disconnecting the common customs framework between Israel and the PA. The World Bank has proposed opening the Rafah crossing into Egypt for Palestinian merchandise, to lessen dependence on the Ashdod port. These are preliminary moves in thinking, far from action. A committee headed by former Foreign Ministry director-general Aharon Abramovich rejects unilateral convergence on legal and security grounds. And the political system first has to get past the Winograd report and Labor primaries.

The American administration understands this, and is willing to give Olmert time. They are in no hurry to assist in his downfall. How can Rice pay Olmert back for his intransigence? Israeli experts see one weakness: talks on increasing U.S. military assistance to Israel. Rice and her people can stall the process bureaucratically to signal her displeasure. It will be interesting to see whether they will do this, or respect the presidential prohibition on pressuring Israel.