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Diminishing returns for Rice in Israel

This piece appears in the Guardian Online and can be read here.  

US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice just completed her seventh visit to Israel-Palestine since the Annapolis conference nine months ago. You remember Annapolis, when after almost seven years of neglect the Bush administration committed itself to securing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal during its last year in office and to dramatically improving the day-to-day situation on the ground.

Displaying admirable consistency and tenacity, albeit a disconnect from reality, Rice reiterated that goal during her visit this week. The Israeli and Palestinian leaders she met with were polite in their encouragement. Yet even among those who desire a deal, most consider the clock to have run out on this administration. Israeli foreign minister and chief negotiator (and contender to be the next prime minister) Tzipi Livni actually warned against pushing too far too fast in advance of Rice's arrival. There is also an increasing sense within the US government that Rice is somewhat out on her own and on a limb in believing the process can be significantly advanced in the dusk of her time at Foggy Bottom.

In relaunching the peace process last November, the US sought to address three issues. First, get a deal on the parameters of a permanent status peace. Second, significantly upgrade the situation on the ground – enhance security, ease closures and stop settlements. And third, improve the regional climate for peacemaking. In pursuing all three in parallel, they got the "what" right. It is the "how" that went horribly wrong.

Next month will mark 15 years of the peace process. At this stage we need more peace and less process. Clearly, defining the endgame parameters, achieving closure, is a necessity. Getting Israelis and Palestinians negotiating again is certainly an achievement. The problem is that after nine months, the negotiations today are barely back to where they left off in January 2001. America probably needed to asses the party's positions from the get go and then either advance closure, accept that the gaps were too significant or submit it's own bridging ideas. None of these were done. In the meantime, both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, lack domestic political legitimacy, and even the optimists talk of a shelf agreement rather than a plan for implementation.

In emphasising the open-ended negotiations, the Annapolis process relegated developments on the ground to being an issue of secondary political magnitude. While the US did enhance its efforts and monitoring on the day-to-day issues, it did so without either a willingness to expend political capital to push for compliance or a readiness to recognise and adapt to certain new realities (in particular Hamas's election victory and subsequent political pre-eminence on the Palestinian side).

Unsurprisingly, the result was too much of the same ongoing deterioration. Settlements continue to expand (see the latest Peace Now report showing that settlement expansion almost doubled this year), obstacles to Palestinian movement have increased not decreased and any gains registered on the security front are at best marginal. Yes, Israel did release 198 Palestinian prisoners to President Abbas to coincide with Rice's arrival. However, such ephemeral gestures unrelated to a broader prisoner release or political plan do little to build Palestinian confidence and only leave Israelis more confused and anxious as to what this means in terms of their security and the bigger picture.

Paradoxically, the most significant development on the ground was extraneous to the US-Israel-Fatah Annapolis track and occurred as part of the parallel Egypt-Israel-Hamas process, namely the ceasefire which has brought a significant degree of security quiet to Gaza and to Israel's southern communities.

In trying to create a supportive regional climate, US efforts if anything achieved the opposite. Bringing the Arab states into the Annapolis process was the right thing to do and belatedly built on the potential of the Arab initiative first launched and ignored in 2002. But the US also framed Annapolis as the everyone-against-Iran-club, both magnifying Iran's sense of being a regional hegemon and incentivising it to play a spoiler role. Engaging in a parallel diplomatic effort with Iran (as was recently hinted at when undersecretary of state William Burns joined the Geneva talks) would have made far more sense.

The Bush administration remained adamant in opposing a peace process with Syria even as Israel relaunched its own talks via Turkish mediation. As Annapolis stuttered, the Arab states embraced by the US as moderate allies again seem to be embarrassed and on the weakened side. These factors together with the unwillingness to generate a more politically sophisticated and smartly calibrated approach to Hamas and now the increasing tensions with Russia have created a regional climate even less conducive to the current US approach.

At the end of her seventh visit, Rice gets an 'A' for effort, but the results seem less generous in every other category. Rice could still produce a handover to the next administration, which could be, with some justification, portrayed as a significant improvement on the hand received in January 2001. She may even suggest American guidelines for a peace deal based on her own conclusions from the current talks. But to be useful, such a plan would have to get the content right (and previous Bush announcements are a cause of concern), be adopted by the new president-elect and be introduced at an appropriate moment in the Israeli and Palestinian political cycles (which may not exist between now and January).

More likely, Rice will need to hand over a work that is not only in progress but also in need of major repair. A new administration of either political stripe will likely express commitment to continuing negotiations and pursuing peace, but they should be warned that if achieving a two-state solution is still the goal, then an 'A' for effort will not be enough this time. It is not an alarmist or exaggerated claim to suggest that on the watch of the next US president the two-state solution will either finally be realised or have definitively passed its sell-by date.


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Daniel Levy


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