Holding Patterns

The 'women's channel' falters, while the Iran threat simmers.

Condoleezza Rice's acquaintances relate that she seldom shows her feelings, but that she has a sarcastic sense of humor somewhat resembling that of Ariel Sharon in his heyday. It would be interesting to know what she thought when she visited Jerusalem this week as she listened to four different plans from Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni, Avigdor Lieberman and Amir Peretz. Outwardly, she maintained her usual polite poker face and stuck to the message sheet: a Palestinian state, strengthening Abu Mazen, the struggle against Iran and Syria.

The U.S. Secretary of State made it clear that henceforth she will spend a lot of time flying to the region, and will visit Jerusalem and Ramallah once every six weeks. It is difficult to assume that she expects to return from these journeys with an agreement for ending the conflict and setting up a Palestinian state in the territories. It is not necessary to listen to secret intelligence reports in order to understand that Israel and the Palestinian Authority are like two sports teams that are playing even though the outcome is already clear, waiting for the leadership to be settled. Olmert and Abbas do not have authority today, or political power, to make daring decisions that will break through the political impasse. At most they can prepare the background for some future process.

Cabinet ministers, experts and knowledgeable people in Israel all share the view that Rice's visit derives from the political problems of the administration in Washington. President George Bush, who has declared a problematic "surge" of troops for Iraq, wanted to throw a bone to his opponents in the form of U.S. intervention between Israel and the Palestinians. The analysts in the important newspapers love this, as do the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, who are always concerned with the Palestinian problem. The U.S. demonstrated that it is listening to criticism, and anyway, Rice does not have anything better to do. It is also convenient for her to appear to be the one who is making peace at a time when her colleagues in the administration are tied up in the war in Iraq.

Since there is no political process between Israel and the Palestinians, Rice has become involved in internal conflicts within the Israeli government. On the day she landed in Israel, Time magazine published an article by Walter Isaacson, one of the senior editors, in which he enthused over the "women's channel" that has been set up by Rice and Livni. He related that since their meeting in Washington at the beginning of December, the two have formulated a new strategy for reviving the peace process. Instead of sticking to the weary "road map" that demands the Palestinians dismantle the terrorist organizations as a prerequisite to negotiations, the sides will formulate a draft for a final-status agreement that Abbas can show the Palestinian people in a referendum. The agreement described by Isaacson more or less corresponds to the Camp David proposals of Ehud Barak in the year 2000.

And herein lies the sting: "Both Rice and Livni face hardliners in their governments who want to stick to the road map and make any movement on the peace process contingent on the Palestinians halting terrorism and cease-fire violations," he writes. And who are these hardliners? "Olmert is slightly uneasy about his foreign minister's new joint venture. Livni has made it known that she wants to follow in the footsteps of ... Golda Meir by becoming prime minister some day." Olmert is neither blind nor dumb. No one is more experienced than he in political conflicts, what the Americans call "hardball." He knows how to read the opinion polls in which Livni beats him by knockout, and he has also read the enthusiastic reports about the joint plans of the two foreign ministers to skip the first phase of the road map and save the political process from the deep freeze to which it was assigned by their male colleagues.

What can be done? Before Olmert left for China, his two senior aides, bureau chief Yoram Turbowitz and political adviser Shalom Turjeman, were sent on a secret mission to Europe. There they conferred for six hours with U.S. administration officials responsible for the Middle East, David Welch of the State Department and Eliot Abrams from the White House. The purpose of the meeting was to prepare Rice's visit and coordinate positions, as is accepted practice in the relations between Washington and Jerusalem. The Americans were in Europe, and for the Israelis it was simple to hop over there quietly without arousing media noise around a trip to America, which is more difficult to hide.

Turbowitz and Turjeman were interested in finding out from Welch and Abrams the truth behind reports of a new initiative for skipping the step-by-step process of the road map. The Americans calmed their fears. They assured them there was no such thing and that the "map" would be followed diligently. On their return to Jerusalem, the emissaries reported back to Olmert that there was nothing to worry about. That the well publicized initiative had died before its birth.

Olmert was left with only the last step - the most enjoyable from his point of view - of verifying that the killing had been carried out. He heard Rice and Livni swear allegiance to the road map at their brief news conference on Saturday night. But that was not sufficient for him. On Monday, following a three-hour meeting with Rice, Olmert announced that he had agreed with his guest that everyone was obliged to the full length of the road map. In other words, there are no short cuts, no skipping of stages, and no private initiatives of overactive foreign ministers. Livni did not wait to hear these tidings: She was already on her way to South Korea and Japan, far from the noise of the incessant investigations, resignations and crises at home.

Will they or won't they?

During the past two weeks, more tell-tale signs of an approaching conflict around the Iranian nuclear program have accumulated. The Americans and the Iranians are collecting allies and sharpening their rhetoric. This is a partial list: Bush has ordered the dispatch of an aircraft carrier to the Gulf and the capture of Iranian agents who are assisting the rebels in Iraq. Russia announced in response that it is supplying Iran with an anti-aircraft missile system that is supposed to act as a deterrent against attacks on nuclear plants. Rice went to consolidate the "moderate axis" among the Arab states against Iran, while Mahmoud Ahmadinejad went to visit the left-wing presidents of Venezuela and Ecuador, who are annoying the U.S. The Iranians are gradually leaving behind their moderate rhetoric, which spoke of nuclear development for peaceful purposes and the production of electricity, and starting to hint at a nuclear military plan. Ahmadinejad says that Israel and the U.S. "will not dare to attack" the nuclear facilities.

In Israel, there is a hushed argument over the question of whether Bush will or will not attack Iran. Olmert apparently believes he will, following his talks with the president, and this is the reason for the optimism he is broadcasting about the Iranian issue. Shimon Peres, the most veteran and experienced of them all, thinks that American public opinion will not accept another war in the Middle East, and the alternatives lie between diplomacy and sanctions, and acceptance of the Iranian bomb.

The next chief of staff will have the supreme task of preparing the Israel Defense Forces for a possible attack against Iran, in case Bush holds back at the last minute. This is not simple, experts say. It will be necessary to bomb the facilities at Natanz, Arak and Isfahan in a campaign that will last a week, with waves of dozens of attack fighters backed up by intelligence, supervision and refueling planes. The U.S. would have to open up for Israel an air corridor over Iraq, and perhaps also to supply information and warnings about the firing of Iranian missiles.

Iran would then have to decide whether to make do with retaliating against Israel, or also attack U.S. forces in the region, and in this way entangle itself in a suicidal war with America. But the decision about a campaign of this kind, if it is ever made, will have to await the completion of the diplomatic moves. Until then, the verbal exchange of blows and the attempts to find allies and partners will continue.