Secretary Rice fights peace-process inertia

Sunday's meeting in Egypt was probably the Bush administration's last effort to get a Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

Amr Dalsh/Reuters
CONTINUITY, PLEASE: Secretary of State Rice in Egypt Sunday called for all parties to push forward the "Annapolis plan" started a year ago in Maryland.

Inertia, history shows, can be a dangerous thing in the Middle East. It leaves room for radicals and rockets to reset the agenda.

That's why US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice – and members of The Quartet – were in Egypt Sunday: To keep the peace train running, or at least to keep its engine warm.

"I believe that the Annapolis process is now the international community's answer and the parties' answer to how we finally end the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis," Rice told reporters afterward.

Ms. Rice and other Middle East negotiators met in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt – site of many previous peace talks – to preserve the progress that has been made since November 2007, when the Bush administration sponsored a relaunch of the Israeli-Palestinian talks in Annapolis, Md.

The previously scheduled meeting was attended by members of the Quartet – the United States, European Union, United Nations, and Russia – as well as Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

"What we heard today from the parties, which is the most important element of this, is that they believe in the Annapolis process," Rice told reporters.

The choice of language, calling it the "Annapolis process," seems an attempt to put a positive spin on a Middle East peace process that has seen very minimal progress in recent years. To some observers, renaming the process for last year's pre-Thanksgiving meeting in Annapolis gives it a more current ring than the Oslo Process – the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian peace accord reached in Norway. And, say some here, its sounds more constructive than mentioning the Bush administration's "road map," which was never successfully implemented.

Rice's last trip

Rice arrived in the region Thursday on what is likely be her last trip to the region to work on an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. She acknowledges that a hoped-for agreement will not be signed before the end of 2008, as promised by President George W. Bush when he was here in May.

But in the half a year since Bush's visit, little has gone as planned. This conflict is now a sort of tug of war in stasis, with very little movement expected until early next year, at the soonest. Following President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration in late January, Israel faces national elections on Feb. 10. Not until then, do observers or key players, expect any progress.

Quartet envoy Tony Blair urged Mr. Obama to carry on with the process, despite signs that some members of the new president's team may want to try a different approach to Middle East peacemaking.

"The single most important thing is that the new administration in the United States grips this issue from Day 1 and it can do so knowing that there is a foundation upon which we can build," he told reporters in Egypt.

The catchphrase of Sunday's meeting was "continuity": making sure that what progress has been made since last year will not be lost. And although Middle East peace negotiators have yet to announce any breakthroughs, they have continued to meet in talks that their advisers insist have been fruitful.

"If I thought hope was gone, I would not be attending today," Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told Army Radio before the meeting. At a press conference afterward, she said that Israel recognizes "the need to establish a Palestinian state, provided that it will not be a terror state."

The next international meeting will most likely be in spring 2009 in Moscow, officials said.

Mkhaimar Abusada, a professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in the Gaza Strip, says that Rice's role of outlining progress will not only help bridge the gap from one US administration to another, but could also help Fatah, led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, stand up to his critics in Hamas.

"It seems that everyone is preparing the stage for the next administration, with the goal in mind that it can pick up where progress has already been made," says Professor Abusada. "Maybe this is also a kind of symbolic support for Abbas. There's a lot of pressure on him from Hamas and from other countries who are saying that the peace process hasn't achieved anything and there's no point in continuing next year. So instead of allowing Hamas to say it's a total failure, Rice can outline the points of agreement and disagreement to be worked on next year or in future negotiations."

Hamas representatives were supposed to meet Sunday with Fatah for reconciliation talks on Sunday in Cairo, separate from the meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh. But Hamas declared over the weekend that it was boycotting the Egyptian initiative. Part of the reason Hamas decided to call off its participation, the group said, was a massive roundup last week of Hamas activists by Fatah-run security forces in the West Bank.

Why Hamas was a no show

"Hamas decided they would be better off staying in Gaza rather than come under the pressure of the Egyptians and the international community to comply with the Egyptian initiative," which essentially calls for a power-sharing agreement, Abusada adds. "Hamas [is] ...basically worried that if they agree, they will no longer be the government in Gaza."

Though Rice will not be leaving her stint as secretary of state with a Middle East peace deal to call her own, she did work to improve relations in the region, forging good connections with both Livni and Abbas.

On Saturday, she became the first US secretary of state to visit Jenin, a West Bank Palestinian city once associated only with militancy and now experiencing a renaissance of calm under Abbas's security campaign there, helped in part by US assistance.

• Material from the wire services was used in this report.

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