Secretary Rice prods Mideast players to table

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice won a commitment from Israeli and Palestinian leaders to meet every two weeks as a way to build confidence before peace talks, but she acknowledged that genuine negotiations remain distant.

Still, this run of high-profile forays into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – Ms. Rice has visited the region four times in four months – helps to convince American allies that the US is reengaged in an issue that strikes a deep chord in the Arab world, analysts say.

The perception that the US favors Israel while allowing Palestinians' aspirations to languish is used by Islamic militants to garner support and weakens public backing for US-allied regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

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But, analysts say, progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front can bolster its allies who can support US efforts to stabilize Iraq and contain Iran's nuclear ambitions.

"Iran, [Osama] bin Laden, and Saddam [Hussein] before have always tried to link the Palestinian cause to their platform, because they feel the deep and strong feeling within the Arab world on these issues," says Mohammad Dajani, a political science professor at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem.

"The media portrayal of Israeli incursions and Palestinian losses eventually catch up with the regimes because the masses are bombarded with the images. The US is trying to diffuse the issue. The perception that there is no solution and that no one is working for a solution creates a lot of tension," he says.

Rice's latest trip wrapped up on the eve of an Arab League summit meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The US is pushing its Arab allies – Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates – to pitch in on the Israeli-Palestinian effort by sweetening an Arab peace plan that offers normal ties with Israel in return for a withdrawal from Palestinian territories captured in a war nearly 40 years ago.

The recent reengagement by the US on the Israeli-Palestinian track will bolster the hand of the so-called "Arab Quartet" in pushing for a more conciliatory message from the Arab League on finding a solution for Palestinian refugees. Conversely, the years of a hands-off approach for peacemaking has hurt American interests in the region, say analysts.

"Everybody has this feeling that they abandoned the Middle East for a long time, and that's partially responsible for the deterioration," says Ghassan Khatib, a former minister in the Palestinian government. "The lack of solution here and the continuation of the occupation has a radicalization effect and an anti-American effect in the region."

When George Bush entered the White House in 2001 amid the early days of the Palestinian uprising, and after President Clinton's administration failed peace summits, the administration disengaged from the nuts and bolts of peacemaking.

Rice told reporters in Jerusalem this week that her efforts have the full backing of Mr. Bush. He visited the region four years ago to initiate the US-backed "road map" peace initiative, but it was not backed up with active diplomacy and has never been implemented.

US to help set up new 'benchmarks'

The current stepped-up diplomatic effort is running up against some daunting political obstacles: a newly formed Palestinian unity government that doesn't recognize Israel, continuing violence in the West Bank and Gaza, President Mahmoud Abbas's difficulties in brokering a deal to free a kidnapped Israeli soldier, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's anemic public approval ratings. That has made Israel reluctant to engage in any sort of discussion that resembles a negotiation.

"The time is not now for formal negotiations," said Rice, who said the purpose of the biweekly Olmert-Abbas meetings would be to "develop this fundamental foundation of confidence."

To build mutual trust between the sides, Rice said the US would help Israelis and Palestinians set up "benchmarks" for smoothing the passage of people and goods in and out of the Gaza Strip, and shoring up often broken cease-fire.

Rice acknowledged for the first time that the November 2005 agreement to open Gaza's border crossings – the only Israeli-Palestinian signed agreement in the Bush administration's term – had not alleviated economic hardship in Gaza.

Indeed, as Rice was in Jerusalem Tuesday conditions worsened for Gazans. A sewage reservoir broke, causing a flood that killed at least four people. Also Tuesday, the International Monetary Fund reported that resources to fund the Palestinian government dropped one-third compared with the previous year.

To reassure the Palestinians and Arab countries about the US's seriousness, Rice has pushed the sides to discuss what she refers to as the "political horizon" for peace. She sought to win an Israeli agreement to discuss negotiating positions on thorny final status issues such as Jerusalem, borders, and refugees as part of parallel and separate discussions with the US as the intermediary.

America's aim to be 'honest broker'

But Israel reportedly balked at the idea of broaching those topics because it would skip key preconditions for final-status negotiations set out in a four-year old US peace plan known as the "road map."

Observers say the dispute may be a sign of a US desire to create more of a differentiation between its approach and Israel's and correct the impression that it sided with Israel on most issues.

"It signals to the Arab world that the US is returning to be an honest broker," says Arie Kacowicz, a professor of international relations at Hebrew University. The expert said that the Rice's recent diplomatic shuttling was reminiscent of predecessors who took a proactive role in Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking like Henry Kissinger.

"There is a real value that she is signaling we are back in business and we are serious," he says. "[But] that doesn't mean you'll see a permanent agreement tomorrow."

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