Michael Abramowitz, Scott Wilson
The Washington Post (Editorial)
October 17, 2007 - 10:37am

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice broke away from her diplomatic meetings here to sit down with the top religious leaders -- Christian, Jewish and Muslim -- of this holy city Monday night. According to people present, she heard about the failure of Israeli authorities to recognize the Greek Orthodox patriarch, a top Muslim cleric's lack of access to Jerusalem's al-Aqsa Mosque and other complaints.

Rice responded by recalling her upbringing in segregated Birmingham, Ala. "She spoke with a spiritual passion about the need for peace and overcoming pain and grievance," Rabbi David Rosen said. "She said to us, 'You all have your legitimate grievances, but there's a moment in history for an inexorable change.' And she believes this is the time for the Israeli and Palestinian conflict to end."

In its final months, the Bush administration has pushed Middle East peace to the top of the White House agenda, with President Bush and his close confidante seeking to improve a foreign policy legacy that will otherwise center on the Iraq war.

"She realizes that her legacy right now is really very poor," said Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser and a strong critic of the Bush administration. "If she can pull this off, she will be seen as a real historical figure."

In addition to meeting with the usual round of top officials this week, Rice has been reaching out to what she calls leaders of civil society in hopes of overcoming doubts about the sincerity of the new U.S. effort.

Talking with reporters, Rice said that for the process to succeed, the Palestinian and Israeli publics must have more confidence in the United States. "In the final analysis, this is about them," she said. "It's about Israeli citizens and Palestinian citizens living without fear and living with a certain dignity. It's about understanding that the United States sees . . . the human side of this."

Rice's visit to the region is part of a stepped-up U.S. diplomatic effort aimed at preparing the way for a Middle East peace conference that Bush wants to convene in Annapolis, Md., this fall. Rice is trying to persuade the Israelis and Palestinians to agree to an as-yet-undefined document that could launch final negotiations toward a settlement of the long-festering dispute and create a new Palestinian state.

The Palestinian side and supporters in the Arab world are pushing Rice to lean on the Israelis to be as specific as possible in writing this document. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit urged Rice on Tuesday to insist on a firm deadline. "We cannot negotiate and carry on negotiating until the end of history," he said after Rice met with him and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, by contrast, is resisting such timetables and details, nervous that making too many compromises at this point could bring down his shaky government. The suggestion recently that he might be willing to turn over to the Palestinians some Arab-majority neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, occupied by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, triggered protest from some of the most hawkish and religious parties in the governing coalition.

Senior Bush administration officials contend that conditions are more propitious for more progress than they thought possible even six months ago, noting warming relations between Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Yet the officials reveal little of how they plan to get around huge obstacles, such as control of the Gaza Strip by Hamas, which has been designated a terrorist group by Israel and the United States. Bush and Rice are also facing deep skepticism among Palestinians and in the Arab world that they will press Israel to make necessary compromises.

Still, some who have met with Rice in recent weeks have come away impressed with her seriousness, and her brief trip to Cairo on Tuesday resulted in both the Egyptian government and the secretary general of the Arab League saying they felt reassured after voicing previous doubts. Rice "says that she is determined, and the president of the United States is determined, to have a breakthrough during the remaining year of this administration," Aboul Gheit said. "I cannot doubt them."

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said in an interview that Rice's diplomacy "is completely different" in tone and timing than that of the four previous secretaries of state with whom he has worked. "There has also been a realization by the administration that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the core of many of their problems in the Middle East," he said. "I think she realizes that American interests in the region can no longer be served by backing Israel alone."

But Ali Jarbawi, a Palestinian political science professor at Bir Zeit University near the West Bank city of Ramallah, said that "if Rice is bringing anything new, some kind of a fresh approach, we'd like to see it, because we haven't so far.

"American presidents start these efforts in their last year because they are not serious about resolving the conflict," Jarbawi said. "They don't want to solve the issue, just manage a current crisis they are facing."

If anything, the Israeli public appears equally pessimistic about Rice's efforts. According to the Peace Index, a monthly tracking poll conducted by Tel Aviv University, a "large majority" of the Israeli population "does not believe the Annapolis conference will significantly advance the chances of reaching a permanent Israeli-Palestinian peace or even achieve a basic clarification of the differences between the two sides."

"It cannot work if the United States wants a peace arrangement more than the parties themselves," said Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations who was to attend a dinner Tuesday evening with Rice. "Right now, the diplomatic issues facing the two sides are unbridgeable."


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