Rice Abbas 298.88.
(photo credit: AP)
A year ago next month, in the middle of the night, amid no little drama and a great deal of expectation, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, working on just two hours of sleep, banged Israeli and Palestinian heads together and brought into the world agreements on movement and access in Gaza and the West Bank.
The State Department, hungry for an achievement in the region - any achievement - spun that story as a major diplomatic accomplishment.
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Those understandings (not really agreements, because nothing was signed) paved the way for the opening of the Rafah crossing under the watchful eye of EU monitors. The understandings also called for the continuous opening - with enhanced cargo capacity - of the Karni crossing; the removal of some of the roadblocks in the West Bank; and the establishment of a bus and truck link between the West Bank and Gaza.
Those agreements, Rice said at the time, would "give the Palestinian people freedom to move, to trade, to live ordinary lives."
That was then. In the meantime, the Palestinians voted in Hamas, continued to fire kassam rockets on Israel and kidnapped Crpl. Gilad Shalit. Israel cut off ties with the PA, sent soldiers back into Gaza and fought a war in Lebanon.
That Rice, during her meetings with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert Wednesday night, and with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Amir Peretz on Thursday, spent time - again - talking about the need to open the Karni crossings to allow for some kind of economic activity in Gaza, illustrates how dreadful the last Middle East year has been.
The construction of a seaport and the opening of an airport in Gaza, both envisioned under last year's understandings, have been shelved indefinitely. The bar has been lowered nearly to the ground.
"Clearly a lot has happened since that agreement was signed," Rice said with great understatement at a press conference in Ramallah Wednesday, after meeting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. "But it's still important that Karni be able to operate. It's still important that there be at least some openings at Rafah."
Rice isn't to blame, of course, for the current situation. As Israel's outgoing ambassador to the US, Danny Ayalon, told The Jerusalem Post this week, "The cards Rice was dealt were objectively very complex and difficult. You have a chaotic PA that can't make good on any of its commitments."
Indeed, the Palestinians, of their own free will and with eyes wide open, brought Hamas to power. But a catastrophe is a catastrophe, and the US is well aware that right now it has a Middle East catastrophe on its hands. Hence, Rice's visit; hence the desire to do something to strengthen Abbas; hence the newfound agenda of forging a moderate coalition in the region to face down Hamas and its ideological, if not exactly theological, counterparts - Hizbullah, Hamas and Syria.
It is important, as well, to keep in mind the domestic context of Rice's visit. The US goes to mid-term elections in November; the Republicans stand to lose ground; and the Bush Administration is still looking for something to show for its efforts here.
Remember, as well, that unlike the days when Colin Powell led the State Department, now there is largely one source of foreign policy power in Washington, and it rests with Rice. She needs some kind of achievement. Forming a coalition of moderate Arab states to counterbalance Iran, Hizbullah, Syria and Hamas would fit the bill, and here she is showing some nascent signs of success.
Last November, Rice traveled to the Persian Gulf before coming here, as she did this time as well. But then, in Bahrain, a high-profile, US-backed summit meant to promote political freedom and economic change in the region ended without an agreement, delivering a severe blow to US President George W. Bush's democratization program for the Middle East.
At that time, a straight-forward draft declaration on democratic and economic principles was shelved, after Egypt insisted on language that would have given Arab governments greater control over which NGOs and democracy groups could receive money from a new fund set up to promote democracy in the region.
This time, however, Rice was greeted warmly in Saudi Arabia, as well as at a meeting of the foreign ministers of Jordan, Egypt and the Persian Gulf countries in Cairo. It is not that the leaders she met with suddenly saw the wisdom of Bush's democratization plan, but rather that the rulers of these moderate Arab regimes realize that ,although democracy may theoretically challenge their positions somewhere down the line, the more immediate threat is right around the corner, in the form of a nuclear Iran and Islamic extremism. The radical mullahs, in other words, are now more dangerous than the democracy-minded NGOs.
Ironically, the concerns of the moderate Arab regimes - generally believed to be Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Kuwait - have given birth to yet another "diplomatic window of opportunity," as some diplomatic officials now term this post-Lebanon-war period.
AND JUST where, one may be forgiven for asking, after looking over the broken Middle East landscape, is this diplomatic window of opportunity? To which the reply is that it is in the enhanced willingness, because of self-interest, of the moderate Arab regimes to come off the fence and take a more active role in isolating the Islamic radicals.
This is precisely what Olmert said last month when praising the recent statements and actions of Saudi Arabia, and clearly what was behind his reported meeting with a senior Saudi official in Amman.
The IDF turned over a huge boulder during the war in Lebanon, and unearthed all types of nasties crawling around underneath. These nasties, now apparent to all, threaten not only Israel, but also the moderate Arab regimes. Now that the boulder has been overturned, it is impossible for them to claim not to see.
According to one senior official in Jerusalem, the moderate Arab states are "scared to death" both of Iran and of the radicals - be they the Sunni al-Qaida or the Shi'ite Hizbullah - in their midst. He said that this fear needed to be leveraged in such a way as to isolate and delegitimize the extremist elements. The moderate regimes were more willing to do so now, he said, because their own survival was at stake.
The same radical Islam that is threatening Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak and has Saudi King Abdullah very edgy, is also a threat to Israel. The war in Lebanon brought into clear relief this convergence of interests, and the question Rice is dealing with now is how to take advantage of it.
One idea being bandied about in Washington is a regional conference of the moderate states to discuss a myriad of regional issues, among them stopping Iran's nuclear ambitions and how to deal with the Palestinians. This type of conference, it is thought, would go a long way toward marginalizing and isolating the radicals.
Although the idea is still very much in its early developmental stage, and it is not clear what - if any role - Israel would play, the predominant feeling in Jerusalem is that any coalescing or concentration and pooling of moderate Arab resources to stop Iran and radical Islam would be welcomed.
Last year the idea of such a conference would have been summarily rejected both by the Arab states, who would have been averse to taking a public stand against fellow Muslims, and by Israel, traditionally skeptical of international conferences that deal with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But a lot has happened since then. The cards have been reshuffled, and the common fear of Iran and extreme Islamic may make for strange bedfellows.
Rice's challenge, which she worked on this week, was to harness this shared fear into something positive that could - just maybe - build up Abbas and put Israel and the Palestinians back on the road-map track. She ran furiously this week to try and get the sides back to where they were a year ago. The telling part is that if she succeeds in guaranteeing that last year's step forward is accompanied this year by only two steps back, and not more, it would be touted as a major diplomatic achievement.