Comments from Blair and Rice in London

Here are comments made by Quartet Envoy Tony Blair and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice after the Quartet meeting in London on 1 May:

SECRETARY RICE: … there is often skepticism right up until it actually shows that there is a breakthrough. And that’s what you work for, and you work for it every day. But I’m not surprised that people worry that it won’t happen yet again. But if you simply sit and think, well, it won’t happen yet again, then you won’t put in the work every day, every hour, to give the parties a chance to make it work. And this is hard work and it’s labor-intensive and it’s time-consuming, but I believe that they do have a chance to get an agreement by the end of the year. And that’s what we’re going to work for every day.

I think the role that we have assumed and that is most useful to play is to be supportive of what is essentially a bilateral process between the Palestinians and the Israelis. And while this is led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Mr. Abu Ala on the Palestinian side, I think you would be perhaps even surprised at the numbers of people that they each have working on this. They actually do have teams of experts who are working on the various aspects of it. Now, the foreign powers – or others can play a role of support. I, myself, sat with the parties and will continue to do that. I think it helps – if we can see if there are emerging new areas of convergence to try to point them out. But we can’t substitute for the parties. This is ultimately going to have to be an agreement between Palestinians and Israelis, supported by their regional neighbors and supported by the international community. And I think that’s how this is going to proceed.

MR. BLAIR: Over these past few months, we’ve been working on a series of proposals for the improvement of conditions on the West Bank in particular. And those have been about both economic projects, lifting the access and movement restrictions, making sure that ordinary Palestinians on the West Bank get a chance at a better life.

I hope over these next few weeks that we will get the definitive responses on a whole category of these issues that we’ve been discussing. And one thing I think is very clear at the moment, obviously, a lot of focus naturally will come on to Gaza, and that’s another matter to discuss. But in relation to the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority have been making real efforts, the donor community have been giving real support. If we were able to get this package of measures agreed with Israel and with the Palestinian Authority and implemented, then I think it would mark a significant change in the conditions to people from the West Bank.

So the next few weeks are very crucial in this. And on the West Bank the economy is actually growing. The decline in the economy that happened in 2006 was reversed during the course of 2007. There is some economic growth happening now in the West Bank, but there could be much more if we got Palestinian Authority, the donor community, and Israel doing everything that is possible to do, consistent with security to improve the situation there. And those measures will focus obviously on the issues to do with the occupation, but it will also focus on Palestinian security capability, since both of those things are important. So, we will see.

MR. BLAIR: I think it’s because people look at the situation and they look at, for example, what is happening in Gaza and they look at all the challenges in it and they say how on earth can it be put together. And my response is very simple to this. First of all, we have no option but to carry on working on this. It is, in my view, the single most important thing that we can do to bring about a different atmosphere in that whole region, never mind to improve the lives of Israelis and Palestinians.

Secondly, it’s really important to come back — one of the questions at the opening of your colleagues asked earlier — to understand how this can work and indeed, the only way it can work. There is a political process of negotiation and the parties are discussing the issues. And they’re doing it very sensibly, not with a great public fanfare. They are actually getting down and looking at the issues that lie between them on the final status negotiations. But they need to be supported by what is actually happening on the ground. And the reason for that is that if you’re a Palestinian leader or an Israeli leader, you want to say to people, here is a possibility of lasting peace, there’s got to be some echo of that plea with what’s happening on the ground. And here is the difficulty that we are working on and focusing on day in and day out to get this done. Yes, we need to lift the occupation. But this is (inaudible) lifting the occupation. Because the occupation is the problem of the Palestinians, but the Israelis also have a security problem and we have to deal with both aspects of this. In other words, what we have to do is to find a way of lifting progressively the occupation, as we provide the proper security capability so that the Palestinians can look after not just their own security but do so in a way that is safe and secure for their Israeli neighbor.

Now, that is what this whole issue is about. And the reason why I remain in the end not merely determined but also believe that we can achieve the breakthrough that we want is that there is a purpose now, both on improving the Palestinian security capability and on getting the economic and social development going, making sure that together those things fit on the West Bank in a way that allows us progressively to change the circumstances in which people live, and then to have a political negotiation that is supported by the reality of people’s lives.

And in respect to Gaza, I just want to say one thing. Everybody knows that the situation in Gaza is terrible. But as the Quartet statement makes clear, there is a different and better way through that, which is for the terror attacks and the rocket attacks and the smuggling of weapons to stop, for the action therefore by Israel also to stop, and for a progressive lifting of the restrictions and the opening of the border.

Now, we’ve got to find a way through both the situation in Gaza and the situation in the West Bank. We can do it. If we do do it, then this political negotiation, in my view, can move forward and move forward better and faster than people think at the present time but it requires an enormous amount of effort.

And one final thing I want to say to you is this, that from the American side and the European side, and the other members of the Quartet, there is a focus on this and that a determination to get something done that has not been present for a significant period of time. I pay very much tribute to what Condi Rice has been doing in the region and with the parties. You know, we are not giving up on this. We are going to carry on working on this day in and day out to try and make sure that it happens.

SECRETARY RICE: We’ve been working very closely with Tony Blair and his mission. Both General Fraser who oversees the Roadmap implementation and General Jones who has been working on – to coordinate American efforts more broadly on some of this, has been working very closely with Tony Blair. And the reason is that it is very difficult to do this in a kind of macro way or a general way. It comes down to really very specific issues. That issue of that checkpoint or that roadblock that is preventing that kind of economic activity in that town. And it gets that specific. And I think what we do have now is a much more effective way of both looking at where real improvements can be made and in checking to make sure that the parties are making the improvements that they have undertaken to make. Thus, for instance, on the 50 roadblocks that were — the Israelis promised to remove, we now have quite a bit of detail of what effect that had. And that then can be shared with the Israelis because it’s a much more labor-intensive and very specific process than I think one could imagine. And I want to thank very much our Quartet Representative because he’s put in place a process with our help that allows us to really begin to look at where we can make some changes that would then have not just an effect on the lives of Palestinians in that particular village, but really on the broader Palestinian economy.

QUESTION: Secretary of State, many in the Middle East, the majority of (inaudible) believe that such meeting (inaudible) in Annapolis. This whole meeting would be – situation (inaudible) financial and to do with investment. Now, the fact is it’s a problem with occupation because if you are in occupation, everything there will stop. There is no point in investing in territories under occupation. In the past, the EU, United States and everyone have invested (inaudible) in trying to build institution. And so Israel have destroyed everything. So what we need is a commitment that this occupation will end. And they feel that. Such meeting is just a matter of buying time until future election and (inaudible). So how far can you pass a message to the people in the Middle East. There is some seriousness and something can be achieved before the end of 2008?

SECRETARY RICE: Thank you. In fact, the logic of the Annapolis process is precisely that it is important proceed on all tracks at the same time. If you remember, the Roadmap at one time had a kind of sequentiality to it. You had to finish phase one, which had to do with improvements on the ground, had to do with security, had to do with various movement and access issues. And at the end, in phase three, they were going to begin a process of negotiating for a political settlement and an end to the occupation and an end to the conflict. And what Annapolis did was to say that that will not work; these must move in parallel. Because it is precisely the point that you need to have a political settlement, an end to the occupation, and an end to the conflict in order to fully realize the potential for both Israelis and Palestinians.

And so it is nonetheless important not to forget that the improvements on the ground, the improvements in the daily lives of the Palestinians and the ability of the Palestinian Authority to deliver for its people will certainly improve the capability of that leadership to deliver a political agreement with Israel and improvements in the lives of the Palestinians, improvements in the capability of the Palestinian Authority, will improve the atmosphere between Israelis and Palestinians, so that Israelis can make the difficult choices. So these are completely interlinked. This is not the old idea of let’s just work on the economic side and we’ll get to the politics later. It is a need to do them in parallel and to do them together. And the commitment that the parties are showing to trying very hard to realize what they hoped for, which is to have the agreement by the end of 2008, is a commitment to all of those aspects. But we must not underestimate the importance to the Palestinian Authority and to the Palestinian people of providing the resources so that they can lay the foundation for their new state, so that they can provide for people, so that they can provide economic benefits, in anticipation of an end to the occupation and an end to the conflict.

Reuters on Rice visit next week

Reuters wrote yesterday about the upcoming visit of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to the region that: “Three months ago, Israelis and Palestinians pledged at a peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland, that they would seek a deal by the end of the Bush administration in January 2009. The window is fast narrowing and diplomats and experts note talk has become more vague, with suggestions of only a framework agreement by year-end, or a so-called ‘shelf agreement’ that could be dusted off by the next president. But a senior U.S. official said it was too soon to write off prospects of a deal and Rice’s goal on this trip would be to keep talks moving between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and pro-Western Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas … Rice is expected to lean on Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak to concede to Abbas’s demand to ease checkpoints in the West Bank and give Abbas’s forces more responsibility. But officials said she would make clear U.S. support for Israel’s right to defend itself … Rice’s first stop is due to be Cairo on Tuesday where she wants answers over how Egypt will secure its border with Gaza after hundreds of thousands of Palestinians breached it last month to buy goods unavailable due to an Israeli blockade This Reuters report is here.

There have been some hints, just slight ones, that there might be some light between Rice’s position and Israel’s, concerning the re-opening of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, but that is not totally clear.

It was Rice herself who stayed up all night in November 2005 — it was even her birthday, she said — to get an agreement on opening this crossing, following Israel’s unilateral September 2005 “Disengagement” from Gaza. The formula had Palestinians running the show on their side of the crossing — but under Israeli real-time “supervision” via video link from some control booth near the Kerem Shalom crossing, perhaps some 15-20 minutes real travel time away.

Now, of course, there is a Palestinian split — and Hamas in Gaza wants to be a part of this deal. The Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, particularly President Mahmoud Abbas, objects, though Hamas says it would not mind some sort of “power-sharing” arrangement. What Hamas objects to is any Israeli role in a re-opened Rafah.

Egypt’s Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman, who has been very involved — and who would have to sign on to any revised deal — just cancelled a proposed trip to Israel next week to discuss this, and the release of IDF Corporal Gilad Shalit, who was seized from near the Kerem Shalom crossing in June 2006, and who is still being held somewhere in Gaza. Israeli officials told Israeli newspapers that they believed Suleiman had cancelled his trip because of all the build-up toward an all-out Israeli re-invasion of Gaza.

Suleiman will, however, participate in a meeting with Rice in Egypt (Tuesday?)…

While the U.S. is firmly condemnatory of the Palestinian “projectile” attacks (Qassams, Katyushas, and mortars), they have also been warning Israel to consider carefully the consequences of its actions, and to keep the humanitarian situation in Gaza in mind.

I wonder if, perhaps, Rice herself might cancel her visit to Jerusalem (and Ramallah), if the present Israeli-Gaza fighting continues and escalates.

Rice says a settlement is a settlement — whether in West Bank or East Jerusalem

The Jerusalem Post has reported that “US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told The Jerusalem Post on Monday that the US does not consider it legitimate for Israel to build homes in some neighborhoods of the capital which are located beyond the Green Line. In a conversation held in the ornate antechamber of her office, she went further than US officials have previously gone toward clarifying her government’s position on the matter. Her remarks set the stage for a confrontation over the issue when Rice and US President George W. Bush visit Israel this week and try to move the peace process forward. Israel, which annexed east Jerusalem after the 1967 war, does not equate the capital’s Jewish neighborhoods over the Green Line with the settlements located in the West Bank. As such, it does not believe that construction there is bound by its obligation under the road map peace plan, which calls for a freeze of all settlement activity. But Rice on Monday clarified that the US believes that portions of east Jerusalem are considered to be ‘settlements’ and that Israel must stop building there as part of its commitment to implement the first phase of the road map.
Rice said ‘the United States doesn’t make a distinction’ between settlement activity in east Jerusalem and the West Bank and that the road map obligations are on ‘settlement activity generally’. She was speaking during an interview conducted by the Post and Ynet ahead of her departure for the region. Rice referred specifically to Jerusalem’s Har Homa enclave as one such proscribed neighborhood. “Har Homa is a settlement the United States has opposed from the very beginning,” she said in response to a question from the Post. She didn’t, however, clarify whether other Jerusalem neighborhoods over the Green Line, such as Gilo and Ramot, were also settlements in the eyes of the United States when asked. ‘The important point here is that we need to have an agreement so that we can stop having this discussion about what belongs to Israel and what doesn’t’, she said in response’.”

That was probably a nice quick recovery from Rice — how is she supposed to know every inch of the very complicated greater Jerusalem area? How is she supposed to know where Gilo is, where Ramot is, and all the details about each particular case?

This JPost report is here.

Now, we are being prepared for big American criticism — at least from Rice

We are being prepared for big American criticism of Israel in the coming period.

A week ago, Haaretz reported that “The United States will conduct confidential assessments of whether Israel and the Palestinians are meeting their peacemaking commitments and share the results privately with the parties, U.S. and Western officials said. Israel has sought to keep the U.S. process of judging compliance with the long-stalled “road map” peace plan largely secret. Palestinians say they favour disclosure of judgments on whether Israel is halting all settlement activity and whether the Palestinians are curbing militants as the plan demands”. This Haaretz story added that a senior U.S. official said ” ‘We will conduct this process in confidence … our purpose will be to encourage progress, not to chastise’ the parties. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Washington will share the assessment results ‘with the parties, probably bilaterally, but perhaps in other formats as well. We reserve the option to be public if need arises’, the official added … A senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel may come into conflict with the United States over increased pressure by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to advance talks with the Palestinian Authority … ‘Their demands from Israel will only increase and it is not certain that we can meet them under the circumstances’, he added. The adviser said that in Vice Premier Haim Ramon’s talks with American officials, he had gone ‘too far in promising them things to please them’. Another senior government official involved in the talks also warned of expected crises with the Palestinians and the Americans. ‘Israel has created a series of far-reaching expectations in the international arena’, this official said, referring to the implementation of the first part of the road map, ‘but this is not going to happen’. ‘There is no political capability either to evacuate settlements or freeze construction in the settlements’, the second official added. According to this official, the problem will be even greater when negotiations begin on the core issues. ‘There are detailed files that include Israel’s position on the day negotiations came to a halt in 2001’, he said. ‘What will happen when they open the Jerusalem file, for example? They’ll find that Israel’s final position at Taba is light-years away from Israel’s opening position today’. ” This Haaretz report was published here.

Now, Haaretz is warning that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is losing patience with Israel: “The latest point of friction had to do with the conference of donor countries to the Palestinians that took place in Paris last week. Rice wanted to proceed from the conference to Jerusalem, to make sure that the political process hadn’t withered and died after the fanfare in Annapolis. There was a decision already. What made her change her mind and not come? One version has it that she received a message from the White House not to rush things, to give the Israelis and Palestinians some time to work things out without her. Olmert’s bureau denies that Israel intervened to block Rice’s visit. David Welch, her aide on Middle East affairs, who had visited Israel a few days before that, felt that in any event, she wouldn’t be able to achieve much with a lightning visit so soon after Annapolis. The Americans say they don’t want Rice’s visits to become just a worthless routine. It was clear that this time, nothing much could come of it. In private conversations – and as she said in Annapolis – Rice tends to compare the Israeli occupation in the territories to the racial segregation that used to be the norm in the American South. The Israel Defense Forces checkpoints where Palestinians are detained remind her of the buses she rode as a child in Alabama, which had separate seats for blacks and whites. This is an uncomfortable comparison, of course, for the Israelis, who view it as ‘over-identification’ on her part with Palestinian suffering. For some leaders of American Jewish organizations, who weren’t all that fond of Rice to begin with, her use of this image was the last straw. Rice is now marked as an enemy. It’s also easier for them to blame her, rather than the president, for an approach that’s not to their liking. But Rice’s anger at Israel really derives from more current events: She was deeply offended at the height of the Second Lebanon War, while preparing to leave for Beirut to pull together a cease-fire, when the IDF killed Lebanese civilians during the bombing of Kafr Kana. Her trip was canceled at the last minute, the war went on for more than another two weeks, and some who know her say that Rice never forgave Israel for this slap in the face. In recent months, she’s been heard grumbling about Israel’s foot-dragging in carrying out good-will gestures toward Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The tension became more open in connection with the Annapolis summit, say Israeli sources. Rice changed the title of the event from “an international meeting” to a “summit,” [what??? the last format was “an international meeting”] despite Israel’s express objections. She supported the Palestinian position, which called for the establishment of a Palestinian state in tandem with the implementation of the road map. Israel balked, and managed to win consent for ‘sequential’ implementation – that is, first a war on terror and then a Palestinian state. When the leaders met with President George W. Bush prior to the official start of the summit, Olmert said that if he had any disagreements with Rice, he would turn to the president. “You’ll get the same answer from him,” Rice said. Olmert insisted on his right to appeal to the White House. Bush listened and didn’t say anything, but officials in Washington advise that one shouldn’t attach too much importance to this silence. Bush likes Olmert, but he likes Rice a lot more. Something very serious would have to happen for the president to override her authority. And she’s smart enough not to clash with Israel without first checking with the president just how far she can go. Israel needs an unofficial channel of communication, a “Rice bypass road,” to the White House. Steve Hadley, the national security advisor, who was Rice’s deputy during Bush’s first term, is very close to her and wouldn’t operate behind her back. And there is no Jewish leader in the Republican Party who, like Max Fisher in the past, has sufficient enough influence to just phone up the president and quietly take care of things. Most Jewish Republicans who have a degree of access to the White House are not fans of the political process, and some are busy promoting the campaign against a division of Jerusalem, an effort that Olmert perceives as a personal campaign against him and in favor of Benjamin Netanyahu. Which basically leaves Olmert as the guy who can communicate with Bush. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is maintaining her own channel of communication with her American counterpart, even if it appears that their initial mutual infatuation has faded. At the Prime Minister’s Office, the focus is now on Bush’s January 9th visit. Expected to top the agenda is the Iranian threat and the ramifications of the American intelligence report that said Iran is not planning to develop a military nuclear capability. On the Palestinian issue, those in Olmert’s circle believe that Bush will make do with some nice words and not bug his hosts with demands to evacuate outposts and remove checkpoints. Rice will have to deal with these troubles after Bush goes back home. And she apparently has every intention of doing so …Rice’s exasperation with Israel’s behavior stems primarily from the gap between expectations and results, and from the fast-dwindling time she has left on the seventh floor of the U.S. State Department. Rice thinks that Israel received a lot and didn’t give anything in return. As she sees it, the Bush administration gave Israel two important gifts in the president’s April, 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon: implied recognition of the settlement blocs, and a demand that the refugees return to the Palestinian state and not to Israel. But Israel isn’t responding with the proper counter-gestures. Here, however, they say that Rice received plenty and that she ought to be more patient. After all, within a month, Israel went to the major political event in Annapolis, and then the donor countries agreed to give the PA even more than she asked for. That’s not bad for such a short time. What’s her big rush? The problem is that Rice embarked on this campaign in the belief that she would succeed in cutting the Gordian knot of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She hoped that in Annapolis principles would be set down for a final-status accord, but Israel told her that wasn’t going to happen. She thinks that the PA is making satisfactory progress with the reform of its security forces, while officials in Israel say she’s exaggerating and that the reform is still very far from accomplishing anything. She wanted to Israel to make more good-will gestures, but the Israelis remind here that this will be hard to do as long as Qassam rockets continue to fall on Sderot. She wanted to see outposts evacuated, and in Israel they blew her off, citing the danger it would pose to the coalition. Whether Israel likes it or not, it has been cast in the role of the obstacle, as the one putting the brakes on – while Abbas and his prime minister Salam Fayyad are seen as the ones who want to make progress … And still, Rice’s people ask: Not even one outpost? One little pre-fab? Rice is right in saying that Israel is not making good on its commitment on this matter, but in Israel they say that fulfilling the obligation would sabotage more important moves. Will the coalition’s stability endure when the government tries to evacuate outposts, or to make serious progress in the negotiations with the Palestinians? Rice wants to believe that the answer is yes, but no one in Israel is willing to bet on it. The word in Olmert’s bureau is that the coalition relies on the distinction between ‘theory and deed’. As long as we’re only talking with the Palestinians, everyone can sit comfortably in their cabinet seats. But a forceful evacuation of settlers, or far-reaching understandings with Abbas, could upset the partnership with Lieberman and Shas. Olmert is well aware of this, and prefers to maintain the coalition and the government over making any serious moves in the territorie
s. For Rice to understand this too, however, she’ll have to be convinced each time anew”. This article was published in Haaretz here.

This is a very strange argument — why is Rice supposed to understand that pressures from opposition political parties in Israel will prevent the Prime Minister from honestly suing for peace with Palestinians?

Rice would be right if she sees the pursuit of honest negotiations as more important than maintaining the present political configuration in Israel — though the boogeyman threat being held out is that if Olmert goes, whoever comes in, and whatever new coalition will be formed, will be worse.

But this, of course, leads to a damned-if-you-do, and damned-if-you-don’t scenario … and in either version the Israeli politicians say they face constraints on sincere efforts to conclude a peace.

Rice: this is just the turbulence of negotiations

Here are some selected excerpts from the transcript issued by the U.S. State Department of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s interview with two journalists from the Associated Press, Anne Geary and Matthew Lee, on 13 December in Washington D.C.:

“QUESTION: On the Middle East. Today we had the first meeting of the Israeli-Palestinian delegation since Annapolis. Our report calls it a — you know, pretty heated exchange, a relatively short one that did not produce anything specific that either side could point to afterward. Is this a setback or a return to old thinking and are you worried that you may already be losing momentum?

SECRETARY RICE: No, this is just the turbulence of negotiations. There are going to be ups and downs. And they did meet and my understanding is that they’ll meet again pretty soon. They have some organizational work to do. But both of these parties are committed to moving this forward and they’re going to move it forward. It’s — but you’re going to have some good meetings and some not very good meetings.

QUESTION: I’m struck, though, by the difference in atmospherics. I mean, you have the leaders, all smiles and handshakes for a few days and then when it gets down to the guys who are actually going to write stuff, they’re, you know, having a food fight.

SECRETARY RICE: Well, it gets hard because you start to get specific about what is required and it gets hard. Anyone who has ever been through negotiations recognizes the first few meetings of negotiations. If you sat down at negotiations and went right to the answer, you — then you’d have a story. There is going to be a process of working through this, of putting specifics on the table, they’ve got to get a negotiating structure in place. I’ll have a chance to talk to the parties either — probably tomorrow, now given the late time, and I’ll undoubtedly see Palestinians and Israelis at the Paris meeting as well and I’ll be able to get an assessment of what lies ahead. But I have never known, studied, read about, or participated in a negotiation that wasn’t pretty tough at the beginning.

QUESTION: One follow — you’ve commented a bit on Israel’s Har Homa settlement plans sometime after the first news broke and I want to ask you about, what was your initial reaction to that? Did you feel sucker-punched by such a — by that announcement so close after Annapolis?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, the first thing I wanted to know was what happened, because the — so we sought clarification from the Israeli Government and they talked about this as something that had been long planned. But I did think that it had the potential, as I said, to — it wasn’t going to contribute to an atmosphere of confidence. It had the potential to undermine the atmosphere of confidence. But look, it’s time to now recognize that we’re in a phase where they now need to negotiate. Ultimately, the best way to deal with all of these problems is to have an agreement and firmly outline the borders of a Palestinian state. Then everybody can know what’s permitted where, but — that is the key. But it’s also going to be important, as we go through what is going to admittedly be a very difficult process, that both sides — and I want to emphasize both sides do everything that they can to live up to their roadmap obligations and to do everything that they can to enhance confidence…

QUESTION: The reports out of Gaza seem to be getting worse by the day. We had reports today of people dying for lack of access to medical care, a shortage of water and so forth. You’ve said you will not stand for a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, but do you think one is building? Are you essentially tacitly allowing one to happen because it may speed the exit of Hamas?

SECRETARY RICE: No, because innocent people shouldn’t suffer because of the terrible policies of Hamas in terms of the humanitarian side. No, we’re following the humanitarian situation very closely and sometimes, it requires very specific actions about what kinds of equipment, medicine, food can get in. It relates, of course, to issues of electricity where the Israelis, in their own processes, have been told to be extremely careful about making certain that there’s electrical supply to Gaza. But we get reports on the situation and I know that the situation is difficult, but we don’t intend to allow it to become a humanitarian crisis”…

“I think there are several very high priorities, and if we can leave them in better shape — obviously, the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the Annapolis process as it’s now called, is a very big issue and to leave that in a much better place than it was when we came would, I think, reverberate in many important ways throughout the region, and not just the region of the Middle East… I hear from our friends in Southeast Asia like Indonesia, for instance, or Malaysia how important it would be to them…”

Annapolis: it's Rice's show

Here is Rice’s appointments schedule today, as communicated by the U.S. State Department:

9:15 a.m.   Bilateral with His Excellency Yang Jiechi, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China.

10:55 a.m.   Attend the President’s bilateral with His Excellency Ehud Olmert, Prime Minister of Israel, at the White House.

1:15 p.m.   Attend the President’s meeting with Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, at the White House.

4:00 p.m.   Bilateral with His Excellency Sergey Lavrov, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Republic.

5:00 p.m.   Quartet meeting, in the Henry Clay Room (State Department).

6:00 p.m.   Host reception for Annapolis Conference delegations in the John Quincy Adams Room.

7:00 p.m.   Host dinner for Annapolis Conference delegations, in the Benjamin Franklin Room.

Rice: And I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, Hamas won?’”

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????

Machsom (checkpoint) Watch: IDF gave Rice false figures, wrong impression

Haaretz is reporting that the very respectable Machsom Watch (Israeli women who monitor IDF practices at checkpoints in the West Bank) is publicly challenging figures that Defense Minister Ehud Barak piously — they say misleadingly — gave to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice: “Only two of the 24 roadblocks Israel allegedly removed recently were in fact removed; many never existed to begin with, the Machsom Watch organization said Tuesday. Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently told U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Israel had removed 24 West Bank roadblocks in order to ease mobility for ordinary Palestinians. However, Machsom Watch activists conducted their own check and concluded the following:
(1.) While the army reported removing 11 dirt roadblocks around Hebron, most of them never existed to begin with.
(2.) Three dirt roadblocks near Salfit also never existed; the same is true of two roadblocks between Al-Abed and Anabta, near Tul Karm.
(3.) The checkpoint near Herodion, which was also on the list, was actually removed two years ago.
(3) At the Jitt Junction near Kedumim, two roadblocks were supposedly removed to allow pedestrian (but not vehicular) traffic through the junction. However, Machsom Watch said, pedestrian traffic is still not being permitted.

The organization noted that since the Israel Defense Forces refused to give it the list of removed roadblocks, it relied on information from a third party that obtained the list from the IDF. No response was received from the IDF spokesman by press time. Haaretz report about Machsom Watch’s challenge to the IDF figures for roadblocks and checkpoints supposedly removed is here.

Annapolis preparations reportedly "moving ahead"

Contrary to other reports of pessimism (which is definitely greater on the Palestinian side), Kol Israel radio reported this evening that “sources in Jerusalem say US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s decision not to visit the region before the summit signals that preparations are moving ahead and there is no need for intervention”.

The Kol Israel story also reported that “Prime Minister Ehud Olmert planned to convene the Israeli negotiating team headed by Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni at his residence Saturday night as part of preparations for the planned Annapolis peace summit. Senior officials and advisors from the prime minister’s office, foreign ministry and defense ministry are expected to take part. A Kol Yisrael reporter says the consultations will address gestures towards the Palestinians … ”

Rice is not traveling to region this weekend

It had been expected that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice would return to Jerusalem (and Ramallah) around the 15th of November, in what was expected to be a final pre-Annapolis push.

But, Kol Israel Radio reports this morning that Israeli officials have been informed that Rice has no plans to travel here in the next few days.

In what may seem like a contradiction — as Rice’s presence was supposed to be supportive in helping Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to overcome their differences — this is being taken as a confirmation of reports this week that progress between the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators has not been sufficient.

It is one more signal that the Annapolis peace conference (or “meeting”) may be held later than reported.

But, as Rice indicated yesterday, she expects that the Annapolis event will take place.