Thursday, September 20, 2007

Rice as a supporting actor

Judging from her assistant's statements, she is meant to serve as a training wheel for a two-wheeled vehicle Rice as a supporting actor

By Shmuel Rosner

WASHINGTON - The word "bilateral" was mentioned nine times within 30 minutes during Monday's press briefing by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, David Welch. Nine times, eight of them were in reference to the talks between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas [Abu Mazen]. This is a pretty clear answer - at least an official answer - to all those who wondered who was responsible for furthering the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks: "an effective bilateral process," "a bilateral process that is productive," "we want a constructive and effective bilateral process," "are willing to envision bilateral negotiations," "galvanize this bilateral discussion." Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrives today for another round of talks, not the last one, before the summit, or "meeting" for furthering the peace process, scheduled for later this fall. Judging from her assistant's statements, she is meant to serve as a training wheel for a two-wheeled vehicle. Since the day President George Bush made his address on the Middle East early this summer, and to the point in which expectations were lowered, by summer's end, the formula has remained unchanged. The bottom line is that everything depends on the "bi," in other words Olmert and Abu Mazen. If they want, they will move forward. Bush and Rice promise to support them. It is a promise that is relatively easy to keep. More complicated is meeting their promise to recruit rejectionist countries such as Saudi Arabia to the supporters' camp. Rice's immediate schedule is filled to bursting with meetings on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. It's as if all the other problems of the world have been resolved. During the second part of her short visit to the Middle East, she is expected to attend a meeting of the Quartet with its representative, Tony Blair, during the gathering of the UN General Assembly in New York; one with Arab representatives; another with the donor nations to the Palestinian Authority and one with the Gulf states. In October she will return to Israel.


Maybe all this is a sign that Rice is serious in her intention to enlist the world in supporting the "bi": possibly a sign that the talk about the "bi" is no more than camouflage for an attempt at a more blatant intervention, an unnecessary push that she will give Abbas, and mostly Olmert, during their meeting. After all, Rice has put herself in an undesirable situation: if Olmert and Abbas succeed in their talks, they will get the credit for the work and she will be credited with assisting. If they fail - and by extension cause her summit to fail - the embarrassment will be registered only to her name. We can praise Rice for being willing to take such a risk. Even more, it is possible to question the wisdom in giving so much weight to a plan in which the external actors are beyond her control. Besides Olmert and Abbas - a rather fragile support structure - Rice is basing her future success on another flimsy stalk: Saudi Arabia. The House Subcommittee on Middle East and South Asia, headed by Congressman Gary Ackerman, held a hearing entitled "U.S. Relations with Saudi Arabia: oil, anxiety and ambivalence." If Rice was did not ask for this hearing, she must certainly depend on it. Its declared aim is to understand how the arms deal worth billions promised to the Saudis by the Bush administration will affect their future support in shaping Iraq, in stopping Iran and in peaceful relations between Israel and the Palestinians. The Saudis are supposed to pick up on the hint: If they do not attend the peace summit the Congress may raise obstacles on the arms deal. These are the first signs of what will happen in the coming weeks. A lively Middle Eastern bazaar, at the end of which, we hope, will emerge some form of document and some kind of meeting. In view of the historical record, Welch said, I understand the reservations. But there are reservations that come before, concerning the ability to produce such a document, and much bigger ones that come after, concerning the ability to move from document to implementation. Shlomo Brom, of the Institute of National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, wrote the following assessment in a paper published this week: "Even if the November meeting produces no real achievement, it will probably not have the same dramatic aftermath as did the failure of Camp David." This, too, is some sort of consolation.

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