U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is the motor, the engine, behind the Annapolis event that starts today, that is now supposed to kick-start Israeli-Palestinian (and perhaps other) peace negotiations leading to the coming into being of a Palestinian State.
Some recent articles are revelatory — there is a very interesting NY Times story, adapted from a book written by Elisabeth Bumiller, “Condoleezza Rice: An American Life”. The book is to be published next month by Random House.
It shows, for one thing, that the American Secretary of State was apparently totally unprepared for — she had apparently never considered, or imagined — a Hamas victory in the January 2006 Palestinian elections, despite persistent reports that many Palestinians were fed up with what they considered Fatah’s “corruption” (the word is relative, and includes a number of concepts that are not part of the normal understanding of the term — including engaging in peace talks with Israel):
Bumiller writes: “When Ms. Rice became secretary of state in the second term, she told Mr. Bush in a long conversation at Camp David the weekend after the 2004 election that her priority would have to be progress in the Middle East. It was a turning point in more ways than one; Mr. Arafat died a few days later. Although Ms. Rice said in an interview that she had set no conditions when she took the job, her aides said that she had known that her relationship with the president would give her far greater influence to push an agenda, including peacemaking in the Middle East, than Mr. Powell’s. Accordingly, Ms. Rice spent much of 2005 working on the Gaza withdrawal that she thought would contribute to stability. Instead, it was seen as so emboldening the radicals that in early 2006 Hamas won a landslide victory in Palestinian elections over Mr. Abbas and his governing party, Fatah.
Ms. Rice, who had heralded the election as a symbol of the new stirrings of democracy in the Middle East, was so blindsided by the victory that she was startled when she saw a crawl of words on her television screen while exercising on her elliptical trainer the morning after the election: ‘In wake of Hamas victory, Palestinian cabinet resigns’. “I thought, ‘Well, that’s not right’,” Ms. Rice recalled. When the crawl continued, she got off the elliptical trainer and called the State Department. “I said, ‘What happened in the Palestinian elections?’” Ms. Rice recalled. “And they said, ‘Oh, Hamas won.’ And I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, Hamas won?’” The Bumiller article in the NYTimes today about Condoleeza Rice in the Middle East is here.
The Bumiller article also shows how Israeli concerns seem much more real and compelling to Secretary Rice, who is now shepherding the Annapolis pre-peace event: “Ms. Rice began her journey as a voice of caution in the first big Middle East crisis the White House faced, in the spring of 2002, when a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up at a large Passover meal in an Israeli beach resort hotel. The militant group Hamas took responsibility, and Israel’s leaders, reacting with fury, sent troops and tanks to storm the Ramallah compound of Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader. Mr. Bush responded by dispatching Mr. Powell to the region, even though both believed that there was little the United States could do. “The president said, ‘You’ve got to go, it’s going to be ugly, you’re going to get beaten up, but you’ve got a lot of fire wall to burn up,’” Mr. Powell recalled. Ms. Rice, whose first trip to Israel was in 2000, stayed back in Washington to monitor and rein in Mr. Powell. She was the messenger for Mr. Bush, who had adopted his hands-off policy in Middle East negotiations not only because of Mr. Clinton but because he was reluctant to make too many demands on Israel at that point in his term. So as Mr. Powell traveled from fruitless meetings with Ariel Sharon, then the prime minister, in Jerusalem and Mr. Arafat in Ramallah, Ms. Rice was constantly on the telephone admonishing Mr. Powell to slow down to avoid putting too much pressure on Mr. Sharon, Mr. Powell recalled … By the end of the trip, Ms. Rice even rejected Mr. Powell’s idea of a peace conference in the region, but Mr. Powell dug in. “I finally told her, late at night, ‘You may not like it, but I’m the one who’s here, and I’ve got to say something,’” Mr. Powell said he told Ms. Rice. He announced the conference before returning to Washington, but without support from the White House, the idea was dead … The Bush administration might have continued with bursts of attention followed by drift had it not been for the looming war in Iraq. By June 2002, Mr. Bush and Ms. Rice realized that before the Europeans and Arabs would support an American-led invasion, the administration would have to prove that it cared about more in the Middle East than the security of Israel.
“Mr. Bush and Ms. Rice began to engage in a major rethinking. The result was a speech, a major departure in American policy, that called for Palestinian elections and demanded the ouster of Mr. Arafat before the United States would support a Palestinian state. Ms. Rice saw it as the beginning of a notion that one day there could be a democratic Arab Middle East, but Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Cheney, who were strongly opposed to anything that might require Israel to accept a Palestinian state that could become a source for terrorism on its border, objected … Mr. Rumsfeld eventually agreed with the speech, but the vice president [Dick Cheney] was still opposed on the day that Mr. Bush delivered it, June 24, 2002 … Over the next year, the peace efforts languished as Ms. Rice and Mr. Bush focused on the coming invasion of Iraq.When Israeli tanks and troops surrounded Mr. Arafat’s compound again in September 2002, this time in response to back-to-back suicide bombings, Ms. Rice viewed the siege as damaging to the administration’s campaign to enlist support in the Arab world for the war in Iraq. In a White House meeting with Dov Weissglas, then a senior adviser to Mr. Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, Ms. Rice demanded, successfully, that the Israelis withdraw. “She said in her way, politely but very firmly, that the United States was trying to put together the coalition prior to the invasion of Iraq, and our operation at that time was very disturbing,” Mr. Weissglas said in a recent interview.
It was not until the eve of the war in March 2003, and then only under pressure from Tony Blair, the British prime minister, that the White House finally endorsed the “road map,” a peace plan of incremental steps that was to lead to a Palestinian state in three years. Mr. Bush said he was adopting the plan because the Palestinians had slated Mr. Abbas to take the job of prime minister and negotiate with Israel. By the spring of 2004, when Mr. Bush agreed to support a plan by Mr. Sharon to withdraw Israeli settlers and forces from Gaza, Mr. Sharon asked for something more that set off a huge fight within the administration: American recognition that Palestinian refugees and their descendants who had fled in the 1940s would have a right of return to a new Palestinian state, but not to Israel itself.
Ms. Rice agreed that allowing Palestinians to return to Israel would overwhelm the Jewish population and effectively obliterate Israel’s identity as a Jewish state. Mr. Cheney and his allies supported Mr. Sharon’s request, but the State Department had always taken the position that the issue — with the final borders of a Palestinian state and how Jerusalem might be shared by the two sides — should be decided through negotiations, not by fiat from Washington. Aware of the debate within the Bush administration, Tzipi Livni, now the Israeli foreign minister but then the minister for immigrant absorption, went to plead her case to Ms. Rice in Washington. “I had the opportunity to convince Rice,” Ms. Livni said in an interview with The New York Times earlier this year. Ms. Rice said she understood the issue was “very, very core” to Ms. Livni, and acknowledged that Ms. Livni’s appeal “was taken into account in the president’s words” when Mr. Bush made a pivotal announcement, in April 2004, that any “just, fair and realistic framework” for Israel would mean that Palestinians would have to settle in their own state — an enormous benefit to Mr. Sharon.“
The Bumiller article in the NYTimes, adapted from her forthcoming book, is here.
The McClatchy newspaper group is asking: “Can Rice save her legacy with ‘Hail Mary’ pass on Mideast?“. The article says that “An ardent football fan, Rice is hoping to rewrite her legacy in the next 14 months, beginning with what amounts to a Hail Mary pass this week in a Mideast peace conference she’s organized for Annapolis, Md.”
Rice has regularly said that the Annapolis event will not be just a photo opportunity, and will be more than just a photo op. But, the McClatchy story questions that, too: “The Annapolis meeting, Rice said last week, will launch negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians on an eventual Palestinian state, rather than conclude any agreements … It remains to be seen whether Annapolis is ‘going to be much more than a photo opportunity, with reaffirmation of a two-state solution’, Quandt said [William Quandt, a University of Virginia scholar who worked on the first Camp David peace talks under President Jimmy Carter]. ‘And then they will go home’.” The McClatchy story can be seen here.
Others have also seized on Rice’s line. Some have quipped that Annapolis will be more than a photo op, it will be “a photo op with coffee”, or “a photo op with dinner” …
In another article in the NYTimes yesterday, Steven Erlanger wrote: “The big American idea [for Annapolis and the day after], to try to deal with the Israeli need for security and the Palestinian need for substantive, concrete changes on the ground in the West Bank, is to work to carry out the first stage of the 2003 road map plan simultaneously with the negotiations on a final peace treaty, both processes to take a year. The road map, accepted by all parties but dormant, set performance-related conditions for progress toward peace. There is an implicit hope that the two can be dealt with separately, as if progress or failure on one track will not affect the other. But of course they will. The road map calls for a freeze on all settlement activity, including natural growth, and the removal of some 24 outposts set up illegally after March 2001. Mr. Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have been negotiating with the settlers to remove the outposts in return for legalizing others; they also want to move some settlers to the big ‘settlement blocs’ that Israel intends to keep. Even Palestinian negotiators, according to senior American officials, privately admit Israel will keep some of those settlement blocs. But the Palestinians define a settlement freeze strictly. According to papers prepared by the Palestinian negotiating team, the Palestinians say the road map forbids moving people from one settlement to another before any final status agreement. They also say a freeze means a halt to all new construction, including expanding existing buildings or building new bypass roads for settlers, and a halt to all forms of Israeli assistance to the settlers, including financial incentives, land allocations, building permits and the like — even in the settlement blocs Israel intends to keep. Israeli officials say that, for Annapolis, Mr. Olmert is prepared to announce a general freeze on settlement construction. But how detailed will it be? And how much will he dare politically while he is trying to negotiate the larger agreement? Two years ago, the Israeli government, as Ms. Rice will remember, was also prepared, in order to please her, to sign her agreement on Gaza movement and access, including allowing ‘safe passage’ for bus convoys between Gaza and the West Bank. Even before Hamas won elections and then took over Gaza, Palestinian rocket fire and Israeli defense concerns killed that agreement, despite previous American efforts to reform Palestinian security forces. And Israeli officials made it clear that they had never intended to start the bus convoys, which they considered an unwarranted risk, in any case”. Steven Erlanger’s astute analysis of the dynamics of the Annapolis pre-peace event for the NYTimes is published here.
So, if the Israelis never intended to start the bus convoys (between the West Bank and Gaza) — despite having signed an agreement last November that they would do so — what can we really expect now????