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(photo credit: GPO )
Vice presidential rumors swirled around US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Special Envoy for Mideast Security, General James Jones, as they met to confer last week.
Several media outlets pegged James as a one of the contenders being weighed by Barack Obama's vice president search team, despite the fact that Jones is virtually unknown to the general public. The ex-Marines Corps and NATO forces commander is apparently seen as the type of seasoned military figure that can bring needed experience and gravitas in security affairs to the Democrats in their electoral contest against celebrated war hero, John McCain.
Rice's name has also been brought up in speculation over who will fill the Republican VP slot, and as a relatively young, female African-American, she clearly also brings qualities that would help balance the GOP's ticket. But the musing has not been grounded in fact, and is unlikely to ever be given McCain's efforts to distance himself from the manner in which the Bush administration has handled some major foreign policy issues.
Rice herself has spoken on occasion of her desire to return to the academic life she previously enjoyed as a professor and provost at Stanford University before joining the Bush administration. If so - if her day as an influential Washington player is virtually done with - that makes her in political terms not just a lame duck serving out the final half-year of her time in office, but a virtual dead duck in the influence she can wield over US policy toward Israel beyond that period.
Perhaps that accounts for the sanguine reaction here to Rice's latest public complaints over the government's plans, announced last week, to build 1,300 new homes over the 1967 border in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo. Rice commented to journalists that, "Unfortunately, there have been a few [building plans], whether I'm coming or not" - and with a reportedly annoyed tone added, "Look, it's a problem, and it's a problem that we're going to address with the Israelis." This is the type of reaction that at other times would have generated such headlines as "New crisis brewing in US-Israel relations." But not now, and not when the comments are coming from Rice.
She is not the first secretary of state, even one from a US administration in its final year in power, that suddenly turned tough on Israel in regards to settlement plans or other matters. But Henry Kissinger and James Baker, to name two, had the advantage of neither the Israelis, nor themselves, knowing at the time that they were, in fact, lame ducks.
It also helped that they had the full backing and interest of their bosses when they tried to lay down the law on Jerusalem. But George W. Bush has never strongly echoed Rice's rhetoric on the settlement construction, especially in regards Jerusalem.
When asked specifically about this issue at his press conference in Paris on Saturday with French president Nicholas Sarkozy, Bush responded: "The Palestinians are discouraged by the settlement activity; all the more reason to get the borders clearly defined as quickly as possible" - a very different reaction from Rice's clear condemnation of the building.
Still, the rhetoric of any US secretary of state has diplomatic weight, even from one with both feet halfway out the door. Rice set the bar in confronting Israel about its building over the Green Line while Baker went much further in linking the issue directly to US financial aid to Israel. Her specific disapproval of construction that is still within the Jerusalem municipal borders, and not within an entirely new neighborhood such as with Har Homa a decade ago, is a development with some worrying precedents for this government (and its successors).
As former US Middle East envoy Aaron David Miller has written: "It was Baker who told [George H. W.] Bush he'd 'f---ed up' when he talked about opposing settlements in East Jerusalem and thereby gave [former prime minister Yitzhak] Shamir more ammo in internal Israeli deliberations to defeat the American [peace] initiative in 1990."
Rice is clearly speaking out against the latest building plans in east Jerusalem in order to placate the Palestinians, and keep the current negotiations on track. But why has she become so focused and determined on the Israeli-Palestinian issue in her last months in office, so much so that she feels that even this step is necessary?
A possible answer is offered in an essay by Rice that appears in the latest issue of the periodical Foreign Affairs, titled "Rethinking the National Interest: American Realism for a New World."
Clearly intended as a legacy-mending personal manifesto, summing up and justifying her years as a senior architect of US foreign policy, it includes this telling passage in the section dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: "When Hamas won elections in the Palestinian territories, it was widely seen as a failure of policy. But although this victory most certainly complicated affairs in the broader Middle East, in another way it helped to clarify matters. Hamas had significant power before those elections - largely the power to destroy. After the elections, Hamas also had to face real accountability for its use of power for the first time. This has enabled the Palestinian people, and the international community, to hold Hamas to the same basic standards of responsibility to which all governments should be held. Through its continued unwillingness to behave like a responsible regime rather than a violent movement, Hamas has demonstrated that it is wholly incapable of governing... If there can be a legitimate, effective, and democratic alternative to Hamas (something that Fatah has not yet been), people will likely choose it. This would especially be true if the Palestinians could live a normal life within their own state."
So there it is. The decision by the Bush administration to pressure Israel into allowing Hamas to participate in the 2006 elections was not a "failure of policy," because it revealed that the radical Islamic group is "wholly incapable of governing," and the Palestinians therefore will surely "choose" otherwise once they have their own state.
Except of course, according to most reports, a year after Hamas has taken power in Gaza it is governing just fine - not as a democracy, of course, but as a ruthless Islamic dictatorship with no intention of ever giving the people under its rule the freedom to choose differently.
So whatever the legacy of the policies she promoted elsewhere, it is likely too late for Rice to reverse the consequences of those policies she promoted in this corner of the world. Nor, in pursuit of that aim, to prevent Israel from pursuing the same construction policy in Jerusalem that has guided all its governments, including this one, since 1967.