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.
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.
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."
For example, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who will lead the Kadima Party into elections slated for Feb. 10, would see no benefit in laying out details and painful decisions before facing an electoral judgment, Mr. Levy says. "Both sides will rather retreat to a comfort zone for their publics," he adds.
Ms. Livni will head the Israeli delegation to the weekend summit of the Quartet of powers promoting Middle East peace – made up of the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and chief negotiator Ahmed Qureia will head the Palestinian delegation.
Both Bush and the outgoing Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, could be prompted by "legacy desires" to press for some kind of milestone or agreed principles that would mark the progress they believe has been made in the past year of talks, some observers say. Bush in particular may be keen to cement the idea that the Annapolis process, even though falling short of its goal of a final accord, is not a failure.
But just how much any future government and leaders would feel bound by a set of principles or even concrete decisions remains in question.
As if to signal its rejection of the binding nature of any agreements by a caretaker government, Israel's Likud party said this week that it would not be bound by any accord reached in discussions with Syria in the event of a Likud election victory.
Still, some close observers of the Israeli-Palestinian talks over the past year insist that the two sides have reached a point where only small differences separate them on some outstanding issues – suggesting to them that the time has come for outside proposals to close the remaining gaps.
"In many ways, the parties seem to be as close as they've ever been" on final-status issues including borders, the status of Jerusalem, security, and refugees and the right of return, says Mr. Joseph of the Israel Policy Forum, who met with officials of the two sides in a trip to the region last month. "As the two sides indicated, this suggests an opportunity for the Bush administration to offer some bridging proposals to help things move forward."
But even if Rice were to adopt a more traditional role of American peace negotiator, the peace process is likely to spill over to yet another American administration, Joseph acknowledges.
"Much depends upon the priorities of the next administration," he says, "whether they choose to focus on this early, unlike the Bush administration, and whether they try to build on what's been done before them."