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Rice encounters Arab skepticism

Fri., Aug. 3, 2007

RAMALLAH, West Bank – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traveled a woefully familiar path Thursday as her motorcade went from downtown Jerusalem to the Palestinian stronghold of Ramallah, past checkpoints, armed men and an Israeli security wall that mark the geography of the Middle East conflict.

She met Palestinian officials, signed a document, had lunch and left. She said that she would be back soon to work with Israelis and West Bank officials on talks to create a Palestinian state. But it’s not clear what – if anything – she can accomplish.

Having largely ignored the Israeli-Palestinian conflict until now, backed Israel’s failed war against Islamic militants in Lebanon, shunned the Islamic winners of Palestinian elections, refused to engage with Syria and launched a disastrous preemptive war against Iraq, the Bush administration has little credibility in the Arab world.

Over the past three days, Rice had to fend off questions from Arab leaders on whether the Middle East meeting that President Bush announced for this autumn will be just a “photo op.” She made it clear that there’s still no place in U.S. diplomacy for the Islamist Hamas party, which now controls Gaza, nor for Syria, an important regional player. That could open the way to either being a spoiler.

Some officials from Arab countries, who privately have raged at Bush’s policies and even questioned his trustworthiness, seemed to be counting the months until a successor takes office.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said he listened to Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates explain U.S. plans for Iraq “regarding the upcoming period, which is the next 17 months, the life of the administration.”

But without dramatic moves soon, and with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas both politically weak, it’s hard to see how Rice can succeed where so many of her U.S. predecessors have failed.

Rice appears ready to try, although she acknowledged the American political calendar.

“Yes, you’re right. We can only work at it for 17 months,” she told reporters aboard her flight home to Washington on Thursday.

Noting that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is decades old, Rice said: “We’re going to try. All that you can do is take advantage of openings.”

Rice’s efforts center in part on a proposed international Middle East conference scheduled to take place this fall. It’s supposed to boost direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

If Rice can get major Arab countries – particularly those that don’t formally recognize Israel – to attend, that would be a big advance.

She made only modest progress. Saudi Arabia, a regional leader, said it would consider attending, but only if it’s agreed in advance that the conference will tackle four thorny issues, including the status of Jerusalem and the status of Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories, that have frustrated every previous attempt at peacemaking.

Arab leaders said they might attend a serious peace parley, but not a photo opportunity, Rice said.

“The president of the United States has no desire to call people together for a photo op,” Rice said at a joint press conference with Abbas.


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