Uphill climb for Rice on Mideast peace

On Sunday, she begins her seventh trip to the region this year to plan November conference.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As the Bush administration moves to revive the long-dormant Middle East peace process – most notably by calling Israeli and Palestinian leaders to an international conference to be held next month outside Washington – pressure is building for a White House to deliver on its new quest for peace.

On Sunday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice makes her seventh trip to the region this year to try to bridge gaping differences between the Israelis and Palestinians on just how ambitious the conference should be. With the agenda still up in the air, major players like Saudi Arabia noncommittal about attendance, and the date still not set, influential former diplomats and policymakers are beginning to go public with worries that time is running short.

"I have no doubt at all that all this will take a very substantial effort, a very robust effort," says Lee Hamilton, the former congressman who joined a bipartisan list of foreign-policy notables who addressed a letter to President Bush this week on steps for a successful conference and peace process. "I see this as the last chance for the president to make a lasting legacy of peace in this area."

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'Statement of understandings'

Secretary Rice will be trying to narrow the differences over a preconference document or "statement of understandings" that could determine prospects for negotiations through the end of the Bush presidency. Israel wants to stick with vague principles such as two states living side by side in peace, while the Palestinians insist on listing specific points the conference would begin to address, like borders and barriers to the movement of people. Closing the gap will be a test of both US leadership and its seriousness about what will be perhaps the most arduous diplomatic effort of the Bush presidency.

As Rice makes her stops in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Ramallah, she'll tote armloads of recommendations from top former diplomats and regional experts who want to see this peace initiative continue beyond the November conference, which is to be held in Annapolis, Md. Many have gone public in recent days with what they see as "crucial" steps for the US to take – from reconfirming the principle of making Jerusalem the capital of two states to avoiding the isolation of Hamas.

"Without a consensual grand framework, there's a real risk these negotiations would produce nothing, and that would be a very severe setback for peace negotiations in the Middle East," says Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Carter and a participant in the 1977 Camp David negotiations.

Mr. Brzezinski joined Mr. Hamilton; Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser to the elder President Bush; and others in addressing a letter to Rice and the current president, calling for the conference to be "inclusive," to "deal with substance," and to go beyond "lofty political statements" to "produce results."

The group commends the White House for inviting Syria to the conference, but also calls for a "genuine dialogue" with the Islamist organization Hamas that controls the Gaza Strip, calling that "far preferable to its isolation."

Avoiding an isolation of Hamas – since some fear isolation could encourage the organization to try to torpedo the peace conference – is also part of another letter sent to Rice by a group of former ambassadors, diplomats, and Pentagon officials. In a policy paper, the group recommends finding ways to draw Hamas into accepting the principles of a peace accord rather than simply ignoring it – since ignoring it risks making the organization even more popular.

"The Hamas issue can't be swept under the rug, but at the same time, we can't let them be the derailing imperative here," says Robert Pelletreau, a former assistant secretary of State for Near East affairs who participated in the diplomats' policy paper.

Like the other former officials, this group of diplomats presses in its paper for the Bush administration to make a strong push with the Israelis and Palestinians for a substantive and energetic "statement of understandings" to guide the conference. Specifically, the group says the White House must do what it can to make sure the document contains what the Saudis need it to say to attend the conference.

Saudis looking for specifics

The Saudis, who in 2002 proposed what is now called the Arab peace initiative for a comprehensive peace settlement in the Middle East, have said the conference only makes sense if it is to address the specifics of an accord – a position that runs counter to the Israeli position.

The two letters reflect a widespread unease in Washington that Mr. Bush's call for a peace conference is not being supported by the attention and diplomatic arm-twisting that is necessary not only to successfully relaunch the peace process, but also to avoid actually setting back prospects by falsely raising hopes.

Ambassador Pelletreau says Bush's announcement of the conference joined other positive steps in the region – including the naming of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as special envoy to the Palestinians for the Quartet of powers engaged in the peace process.

"And yet, we were not seeing much preparation going on in the administration after the president's announcement," says Pelletreau. Among other things, that led the Israel Policy Forum, a New-York-based organization that supports concluding a two-state settlement, to gather the group of diplomats that includes Pelletreau to write their paper.

Still, Pelletreau says the intent is to assist in laying the groundwork for a successful peace process. "We're not trying to be critical of the administration. We are trying to support the call for an international conference by suggesting ways it can be successful," he says.

Yet despite Rice's repeated stops in the region, some experts are still wondering why more effort isn't being put into guaranteeing the success of an initiative Bush announced with great fanfare. Ever since Rice shifted her attentions at the beginning of the year to the peace process, some analysts thought the timing had more to do with her desires to mold a positive legacy than with conditions on the ground that were what diplomats call "ripe" for a new effort.

Indeed, the conditions Rice will encounter next week seem hardly better. Both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are particularly weak. Mr. Olmert is under a corruption cloud and buffeted by new polls that show barely half of Israelis support peace talks at this time. Mr. Abbas rules over only part of the Palestinian population, with Hamas governing a third of Palestinians.

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