Little to show for Rice’s Mideast trip, but the final verdict may still be out


WASHINGTON — After a frustrating, mostly fruitless Middle East peace tour, Condoleezza Rice might have expected at least an E for Effort.

Instead, analysts across the spectrum are giving her a Y — as in, why bother?

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Rice’s tour last week of Israel, the Palestinian areas, Egypt and Saudi Arabia was meant to build on pledges by major players during last month’s U.N. General Assembly opening to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Instead, she emerged with only a recommitment from Israel to keep border crossings open — something that was considered small-bore when Rice first extracted it nearly a year ago.

Rice’s trip “was doomed in the first place,” said Danielle Pletka, a vice president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “She shouldn’t have gone.”

Mahmoud Abbas, the relatively moderate Palestinian Authority president, was preoccupied with his failed attempt to establish a national unity government with Hamas, the terrorist group that runs the P.A. Cabinet. Hamas ultimately rejected Abbas’ baseline, which was that the group recognize Israel’s existence.

The international community has set three conditions for the Hamas-led government before international aid can be resumed: that it recognize Israel, forswear terrorism and accept past Israeli-Palestinian agreements. But Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian pollster, said Palestinians were not ready to recognize Israel, preferring to reserve it as part of a final peace deal.

“Two-thirds of the public is telling us Hamas should not recognize Israel as a response to the conditions” of the international community, Shikaki said Monday on an Israeli Policy Forum conference call. “At the same time, we have a similar percentage saying there should be recognition of Israel, but only as part of a peace agreement.”

After failing to get a Palestinian unity government, Rice set her sights lower: At a joint press conference with Abbas on Oct. 4, she said the emphasis should be on opening crossing points from Gaza while ensuring security for Israel, which has suffered a barrage of rockets from the Gaza Strip.

“Security, the movement and access, economic development, well-being are all interlinked,” she said.

David Makovsky, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that if those steps help salvage the battered Palestinian economy — and if that bolsters Abbas in his outreach to Israel — it could be considered a victory for Rice.

“If there’s a way that crossing points improve without sacrificing Israeli security, then what is now being seen as a non-event will come to be seen as an important one,” he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, meanwhile, has been preoccupied with shoring up his government, which is still struggling to survive its failure to crush Hezbollah in this summer’s monthlong war in southern Lebanon.

Olmert is trying to lure Avigdor Lieberman’s hawkish Yisrael Beiteinu Party into the government, and was not in a position to make the gesture Rice expected: setting a date for a summit with Abbas. Instead, he offered a vague commitment to a future meeting.

Visits like Rice’s often allow U.S. officials to extract a statement from Israel on settlements, said Ori Nir, an analyst at Americans for Peace Now — at the very least, a commitment to dismantling West Bank outposts considered illegal even by the Israeli government.

“The most obvious Israeli gesture would have been to do something about settlements, removing outposts, something Israel has already committed to do,” Nir said.

But no such commitment was forthcoming, and Israeli officials have said they’ll deal with the outposts “after the Jewish holidays,” which end in mid-October — but which often is an Israeli way of saying, “whenever.”

There is one possible breakthrough on the horizon: Hamas officials say Cpl. Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured June 25 in a cross-border raid by Hamas-affiliated gunmen, will be released in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners by the end of Ramadan, in two weeks.

Absent any hope for a larger solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the best outcome of Rice’s visit would be to manage the conflict, Hebrew University political scientist Gabriel Sheffer said.

“I don’t think the time is proper to speak of resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s too far-fetched,” Sheffer said. “Israel has taken some steps by opening the gates to Gaza, letting food in and by letting Palestinians move more freely in the West Bank.”

True enough, Pletka agreed, but that was hardly enough for a visit by the secretary of state.

“I view the coin of the secretary of state as one of the highest value,” she said. “By constantly going and begging for good behavior you diminish that coin and risk becoming Warren Christopher,” the Clinton-era secretary of state whose frequent travels between Israel and Syria ended fruitlessly.

Rice is maintaining the momentum. She was set to address the American Task Force for Palestine on Wednesday night and outline her vision for Palestinian statehood.

Returning from the trip, Rice said it at least gave her a better understanding of what the parties expected.

“I had a chance to sit face-to-face with Mahmoud Abbas and understand better what he thinks his options are for dealing with the political crisis that the Palestinians are facing,” she told reporters on her plane last Friday. “And I’m going to go back for extensive discussions with the president and with the national security principals because this is an absolutely crucial time in the Middle East, and I heard in every single place this isn’t a time to stand still in terms of a policy in the Middle East.”

That open-endedness is inviting other voices in Washington to proffer solutions, particularly from the dovish end of the spectrum.

The IPF assembled former U.S. ambassadors and dovish Jewish pundits last month to write to Rice, calling on her to mediate an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire; revive a Saudi plan that involves Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for an Israel’s withdrawal to pre-1967 boundaries and resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue; and focus “on what the Palestinian government does, not what it says,” which means not pressing Hamas to recognize Israel as long as it doesn’t directly carry out terrorist attacks.

Three other liberal-leaning groups — the New America Foundation, the Century Foundation and the International Crisis Group — will launch a new report at the end of this week called “The Arab Israeli Conflict: To Reach a Lasting Peace.”