Rice’s Mideast Minefield

By David Ignatius (THE WASHINGTON POST, 21/03/07):

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is crossing a modest threshold in her efforts to mediate the Palestinian problem: She is signaling her willingness to meet with some members of the Hamas-backed “national unity government,” even though the Israelis have publicly opposed such a move.

Rice doesn’t do anything impulsively, least of all jump into the world’s most intractable conflict. And the space she has opened between U.S. and Israeli positions is quite small. But as she prepares for another trip to the Middle East late this week, Rice is sending the message that despite the complications posed by the Palestinian unity government announced last weekend, she is pressing ahead with her diplomatic efforts to broker the creation of a Palestinian state.

Henry Kissinger called this incremental approach “step-by-step diplomacy” when he was secretary of state during the 1970s under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. In Rice’s case, there have been only baby steps so far. But she appears to recognize that as she moves forward, she will need to engage the Palestinians more broadly, even though these contacts will upset some Israelis.

Rice’s position is that she won’t refuse to talk to Palestinians just because they have become members of the Hamas-dominated government, if their past public statements have recognized Israel’s right to exist. She is prepared, for example, to meet the new Palestinian finance minister, Salam Fayyad, a former World Bank economist. In a sign of the new U.S. policy, Fayyad met yesterday with the U.S. consul general in Jerusalem, Jacob Walles, according to Israeli press accounts. State Department officials also don’t rule out the possibility that Rice might meet with the new foreign minister, Ziad Abu Amr, a former political science professor with a doctorate from Georgetown who is friendly with Hamas.

Israel’s policy, by contrast, is that it “will not be able to work with the [Palestinian unity] government or any of its ministers” until that government recognizes Israel and renounces violence, according to a formal statement issued last weekend. Israel isn’t happy about the U.S. deviation from this policy, but Israeli officials don’t want to pick a public fight at this point. They remain confident that the United States and Israel share the same strategic goals, even if their tactics have begun to differ.

Since direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians are out, Rice will adopt the mediator’s role of holding separate “parallel communications” with both sides. (In Kissinger’s day, such meetings were known as “proximity talks.”) In these conversations, she will explore further what she calls the “political horizon” for the Palestinian state. Specifically, she hopes to develop a common agenda of issues that need to be resolved for that state to exist. Her chief Palestinian counterpart, for now, will be Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is acceptable to Israel.

Rice will discuss with Abbas and his advisers the tools that would allow a Palestinian state to function effectively. For example, she plans to explore how security might be maintained in a demilitarized Palestinian state — including the role that might be played by outside security forces, such as the European Union personnel who now act as monitors at checkpoints at Gaza’s border crossings with Egypt and Israel. A final item on Rice’s agenda will be steps to build solid governance in a future Palestinian state, including financial and technical support for ministries.

To add some balance to her effort, Rice is urging Arab states to reanimate their offer of peace to Israel, as expressed in Saudi King Abdullah’s 2002 peace initiative. For example, Rice hopes the Arabs will discuss interim steps, such as ending hostile propaganda and exchanging trade missions and other low-level contacts. Rice’s argument, in essence, is that a broad Arab-Israeli engagement is necessary during efforts to solve the Palestinian issue, instead of as icing on the cake after a peace deal is concluded.

Israel’s worry is that Rice is giving ground in ways that will only embolden Hamas. The militant Islamic group won concessions from Abbas in the formation of the unity government, including a right to submit any peace agreement for a referendum or parliamentary vote that would include Palestinian exiles. Abbas also failed to deliver on his promise that Hamas would release captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit before formation of a unity government. Meanwhile, Israeli security officials see Hamas expanding its military force in Gaza, with 12,000 troops and longer-range missiles with more-lethal warheads.

That’s the deadly standoff into which Rice is venturing as a mediator. She has started down a road that even Kissinger couldn’t navigate. But she understands the diplomat’s obligation that, having started a peace process, she cannot now stop.