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Mideast peace: one more push

Condoleezza Rice heads to the area for a summit of powers promoting peace.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 5, 2008

Secretary of State: Condoleezza Rice has met Israeli and Palestinian leaders many times since last November. She is shown here at an April meeting in Bahrain.

Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters/file

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Washington

Less than a year after President Bush launched an effort to reach a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by the end of his term, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sets out Wednesday on what could be a final push to put Mr. Bush's stamp on the sputtering peace process.

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This weekend, the Egyptian seaside resort of Sharm el-Sheik will host a summit of the foreign ministers of major powers – and Israeli and Palestinian leaders are scheduled to make a rare joint appearance. As a result, expectations are growing for at least a minimal breakthrough – perhaps setting markers from which a new US administration could take up the peace process next year.

"The Bush administration has a real opportunity to move beyond the role of facilitator to get the two sides to at least set down what they have accomplished in the last year," says Peter Joseph, president of the Israel Policy Forum, a US advocacy group that encourages sustained American diplomacy in the Middle East. "Maybe they can't determine what the next administration does with it, but they can pass the baton in such a way that has the potential to keep the peace process moving forward."

Still, with talk of passing batons come reminders of high hurdles. Israel is going into a campaign that will culminate in national elections early next year, and the fractured Palestinian leadership is entering reconciliation talks later this month. Thus, prospects for building momentum appear to be several notches below bright.

Rice's approach

Secretary Rice has made numerous trips to the region – specifically to sit down with Israeli and Palestinian leaders since last November. That's when Bush launched the so-called Annapolis process, with the goal of reaching a peace agreement by January 2009.

But unlike past US administrations, Rice and other American officials working on the six-decade-old conflict have refrained from presenting American proposals for addressing the big outstanding issues. They've preferred instead to act as a facilitator of talks between the two sides.

State Department officials indicate that this preference is unlikely to change in the Bush administration's waning days. But they also suggest that Rice is interested in leaving behind a sustainable peace process that the next American administration can pick up without starting over.

That would be a change from what occurred at the end of the Clinton administration, when the failure of President Clinton's personal drive to conclude a peace accord ended in bitter recriminations and a long hiatus in negotiations.

But even laying down markers for future talks could be hard, given the unknowns about future leadership of the principal parties, in particular the Israelis.

"It's very difficult at best to lock in something for future negotiations," says Daniel Levy, director of the Middle East initiative at the New America Foundation in Washington. "Until everything is agreed, and especially when you have at least one side facing an imminent test of public approval, neither side sees a benefit from pursuing a work in progress."

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