Low profile for Secretary Rice's Israel visit

In Israel, the media focused on possible breakthroughs in which the US played no role, highlighting low expectations for Rice's trip.

Ahmad Omar/AP
Talks: US Secretary of State Rice met with Lebanese leader Nabih Berri Monday in a surprise visit to Beirut.

Condoleezza Rice came here this week for the 20th time since becoming secretary of State, and left town having offered many of the same statements made on previous Middle East peace missions: that Israelis and Palestinians should follow their road map obligations; that the Palestinians must fight terrorism; and that the Israelis must stop building settlements.

But the local media have virtually lost interest in the visit of a US secretary of State, an event which in the past had always built expectations of progress in the peace process, and always made the front page.

The dearth of coverage – and the focus instead on security developments other than those between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, a track in which the White House has invested deeply – is an indication of how low expectations are for any peace breakthrough before the end of President Bush's administration.

Israel's two mass-circulation dailies, Maariv and Yediot Aharonot, did not cover Secretary Rice's visit. Haaretz, the progressive broadsheet, filled its front pages with expected breakthroughs in which US officials play no role.

These include an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire between Israel and Hamas that was announced Tuesday and will take effect Thursday; a resumption of Israeli-Syrian talks hosted in Turkey; and the possibility of a prisoner exchange next week between Israel and Hezbollah, the Iranian-supported Islamist movement in Lebanon.

"The government of Israel has decided to give a clear preference to the Egyptian track and that remains the priority," says Mark Regev, the spokesman of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. By giving it "priority," he explained, Israel is indicating that it would prefer to reach a cease-fire – also commonly referred to as a tahadiyeh, or calming, in Arabic – rather than launch a major military operation in Gaza.

The Palestinian press also focused little on the visit. "Frankly, people are not at the point anymore where they look at her visit with any sense of seriousness," says Bassem Zubeidy, a professor at Bir Zeit University, near Ramallah in the West Bank. "She comes and says nice things to Mr. Abbas, but is not showing any real strictness when it comes to dealing with the Israelis. That Rice was here was really presented in our media ... in a very brief way, and not in a very positive way."

Diplomatic officials close to the US-driven peace process, however, insist that some progress is being made with each Rice visit to the region, during which she deals with three tracks in the Israeli-Palestinian talks.

The first is a "diplomatic track," in which Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni meets with senior Palestinian official Ahmed Qorei (also known as Abu Ala), and which sources close to the talks say will, at the very least, produce an agreed-upon document by the end of the 2008.

Then there is a "road map implementation track," in which Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, along with a US presence at many of these meetings, discuss on-the-ground issues such as roadblocks and checkpoints.

Finally, an "institution-building track" focuses on other issues such as economic investment in the Palestinian areas – known by some as the "Tony Blair track," because Britain's former premier heads this department, as well as a program to build up the Palestinian Authority's security abilities, assisted by the US security coordinator, Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton.

"People seem to be quite convinced that progress is being made, but they're also sticking to their positions that they are not going to show it to the media," says a Western diplomat familiar with the process. "But at what point do you trot out accomplishments to the public to show that progress is being made? That's always the dilemma. Without it, you face declining expectations."

After meeting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, Rice said that no party should be "taking steps at this point that could prejudice the outcome of the negotiations." The comment was in reference to Israel's announcement, on the eve of her arrival Saturday night, that it planned to build another 1,300 housing units in East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed after 1967 and which Palestinians see as their future capital.

Rice also spoke to Israeli concerns about terrorism.

"We'll talk some about how the Palestinians see themselves moving on some of the terrorism side, and I do think that there is more that could be done on that side," Rice said, giving Prime Minister Fayyad credit for "going after terrorist finances."

The secretary, who is expected to return to Israel soon, has herself been traveling a bit more modestly, as if trying to cultivate a sense of being more of an active moderator in the region and less of a guest. She came on a smaller plane, with fewer staff members, and brought only three wire-service reporters with her as traveling press.

"There may be times when [three-way meetings] help," Rice said during her visit here. "I think the last one helped. But I don't want it to just become something that's formulaic."

She added: "I think it's pretty intensive, but, you know, it's June, and I expect that people are going to work harder and harder. They're also beginning to find out where differences are. And as they do that, they'll need to intensify ways of finding ways to bridge those differences. "

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