Time to Change the Tune

Rice is on a mission - to create a political horizon for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - and it is time for Ehud Olmert to start taking that mission seriously.

When the character of the U.S. secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, recently appeared on the popular Israel TV comedy show "Eretz nehederet" ("A Wonderful Country"), she was depicted singing Aretha Franklin's famous anthem "Respect." As Rice arrives in Israel this weekend for her seventh visit in eight months, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would be well advised to show her just a little bit more respect.

The secretary of state's discovery of Middle East shuttle diplomacy is not about treading water, or showing "our Arab friends that America cares about the Palestinians." No, Rice is on a mission - to create a political horizon for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - and it is time for Ehud Olmert to start taking that mission seriously. To quote another musical anthem of the 1960s, the times they are a-changin'.

In Washington the talk is of a shifting balance of power within the Bush Administration. The criminal conviction of his former chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, weakened the already deeply unpopular figure of Vice President Dick Cheney. The militant neoconservative ideologues are losing ground to the multilateralism, diplomacy and deal-making approach to foreign policy led by Secretary Rice. It started with the breakthrough deal in the six-party talks on North Korea, continued with the Baghdad conference two weeks ago, which included U.S., Syrian, and Iranian representatives, and now witnesses an American decision to maintain contact with Palestinian Authority ministers and continue the Middle East peace efforts even after the Mecca agreement. The meeting between U.S. Consul-General in Jerusalem Jacob Walles and Palestinian national unity government finance minister Salam Fayyad, less than 48 hours after the Israeli government announced it would continue with its wholesale PA boycott and called on allies to do likewise, should not go unnoticed in Jerusalem.

In Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Rice has a new ally around the table of administration principals. And because Rice's new deputy at State, John Negroponte, is taking care of much of the day-to-day management of the department, Secretary Rice is, in effect, able to double up as Special Middle East Peace Envoy Rice.

Yet in Jerusalem, the Prime Minister's Bureau seems to be acting as if it's business as usual. If Rice is getting too active with her peace-making quest, then T+T (Yoram Turbowitz and Shalom Turgeman) can always be dispatched to Elliott Abrams at the White House, who in turn will enlist Cheney to keep the president in tow. But Rice too has the president's ear, and she has used this access and close relationship, for instance, in guaranteeing Bush's sign-off on the North Korean deal.

Olmert's apparent lack of interest in Rice's shuttle diplomacy not only risks misreading the new American reality, but it may also waste a precious opportunity to secure Israel's future. A determined Olmert will likely be successful in deflecting Rice's peace offensive. Successful and wrong. A re-think is needed.

First Olmert must get over his obsession with the threat of the Livni-Rice sisterhood, and work directly with the secretary of state. Second, Olmert should get on board with the project of creating a political horizon that reaches agreements on the detailed parameters for resolving the conflict. This could re-launch the supposed Kadima platform of territorial compromise, the two-state solution, and secure borders for Israel. It is also the best way to give meaning to the mantra of "strengthening Abu Mazen [Abbas]," while at the same time exploring whether Hamas, in government, can acquiesce to the realization of a viable two-state solution.

Third, Olmert needs to find a way to say the magic words - "the 1967 lines." Until Israel declares the pre-Six-Day War boundaries to be the basis for future permanent borders (including the option of equal land swaps), the Israeli demand for Arab and Palestinian clarifications on the refugee issue rings hypocritically hollow and disingenuous.

For Olmert, such moves could carry the tantalizing benefit of serving both his personal interest and the national interest. If it is still possible for Olmert to resuscitate his premiership (and it might be), it will surely take a bold agenda-setting diplomatic move. Israel urgently needs to put the Palestinian conflict and the occupation behind it. We do have, after all, one or two internal issues that perhaps merit a little attention. And time is not on our side.

Today's circumstances, Israeli government weakness notwithstanding, are surprisingly propitious. The U.S. is keen for real political progress. The Palestinian unity government provides a mechanism that, if nurtured, could deliver an ongoing cease-fire while minimizing the prospects of Hamas undermining a peace process. The Arab states are not only ready but eager for a deal - as evidenced by the Saudi-Arab League initiative. Addressing a joint session of the U.S. Congress earlier this month, Jordan's King Abdullah called the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the "core issue in the Middle East" - the greatest obstacle to moderation and gift to extremism in the Muslim world. For this reason Muslim states beyond the region - led by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono - recently convened Muslim nations to call for Israeli-Palestinian peace and hold out the prospect of a broader reconciliation between Israel and the Muslim world.

If this weekend's visit by Secretary Rice becomes the occasion for Prime Minister Olmert to change his tune, then it could just be both his, and our, redemption song.

Daniel Levy, a former adviser in the Israeli Prime Minister's Bureau, is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the Century Foundation, and directs their respective Middle East and peace initiatives.