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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice returned victorious from her Middle East trip, after doing what no other Bush administration official had been able to do for the past five years: getting the Israelis and the Palestinians to sign an agreement. The Rafah border-crossing was hailed as a huge success for American diplomacy and Rice got all the credit for it. "The Gaza agreement was Rice's first real 'Kissingerian moment,'" wrote columnist David Ignatius in the Washington Post, constituting the ultimate praise in the world of conservative diplomacy.
But while the press has been celebrating Rice's great moment, some members of the American Jewish community have begun to feel a little uncomfortable. The night-long negotiations in Jerusalem, and the heroic descriptions of how Rice practically stopped her plane on the runway and made both sides understand that it's "her way or no way," caused some worry in the pro-Israel arena.
"It is true, of course, that Israel went along willingly with the agreement Rice presented that night, but I'd feel better if she had left it up to the sides," said one Jewish activist known for his hawkish views.
Indeed, the mere fact that the secretary of state is getting into the practice of brokering deals in the Middle East is arousing anxiety among activists about future deals. What will happen - they are wondering - if Rice comes up with another plan and starts pressuring Israel to accept it?
This fear remained on the sidelines until this week, when a letter to Rice circulating in the House of Representatives raised the issue to the surface.
The letter was initiated by Republican congressman Henry Hyde, Chairman of the House International Relations Committee, and by Democrat Lois Capps, a Jewish lawmaker known for her liberal views. The letter commends Rice for the Rafah border-crossing agreement and encourages the secretary of state to keep up her active involvement in the region. "We thus hope that you will continue to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians a personal priority, including seeing through the implementation of this historic agreement," the letter says.
This is not your usual pro-Israel Middle East policy letter.
A democratic staffer said this week that the letter was the result of an "outburst of optimism" in the pro-Israel community, fueled by the disengagement from Gaza , the Rafah agreement and the political "big bang" in Israel. "There is a significant group of lawmakers who believe you can no longer stick to the old status quo," the staffer said, "and that if the US does not remain involved, there will never be any agreement in the region."
So far, some 40 congressmen have signed the letter. This is a fairly impressive number for a liberal-led letter, but far from the usual 300 and more cosigners that mainstream pro-Israeli letters and resolutions normally get.
THE JEWISH groups pushing for greater US involvement and for another Rafah-style deal are the Israel Policy Forum and Americans for Peace Now, but the backers of the Hyde-Capps letter are prouder of the supporters who are not among the "usual suspects" of liberal - dovish - Jews. These include the leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements who endorsed the letter and Congressman Tom Lantos - a California Democrat known for his unyielding pro-Israel stance and his close relations with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
The Jewish groups backing the letter, then, are breaking ranks with the traditional pro-Israel approach according to which "the less US involvement, the better."
Not all such groups are behind the call for Rice to continue with her active Mideast role, however. The pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC - which is a major force on Capitol Hill - is not calling on lawmakers to endorse the letter; and other Jewish leaders are taking a step back. Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, says there should be a "certain amount of concern" in the Jewish community over Rice's latest activity. "We should applaud the secretary of state for succeeding to reach a deal on the border-crossing, but I would not call on her to go on with that approach," Foxman said.
Israeli officials this week seemed to play down the concerns about Rice taking on a more active role in the conflict, saying that though the military establishment in Israel had its reservations about the Rafah plan, the political echelon accepted it and had not been pressured into any decision.
During the first Bush administration, Rice was always considered to be one of the pro-Israel driving forces. As national security adviser, she supported the isolation of Yasser Arafat, and though she was always strict on issues of settlements and outposts, she kept a good working relationship with Sharon and his senior adviser, Dov Weisglass.
Rice's becoming America's number one diplomat clearly has had an effect on the way she sees the world. When serving at the White House, she was free from dealing with global needs and international pressure. Now these are precisely the concerns of her beat. She is the person in the administration charged with rebuilding ties with Europe, and that is her main mission. This week, she spent a few difficult days with her European counterparts who were venting their frustration after discovering that the US was flying jets over their countries with terror suspects on their way to secret prisons for interrogation. Rice listened politely, promised again and again that the US does not allow torture and asked the European leaders to be on board with America in the war against terrorism.
But the need to regain European confidence in America has its price. For example, Rice and the US administration had to agree to a postponement in the referral of the Iranian nuclear issue to the UN Security Council last month, in order to allow Russia to exhaust its diplomatic efforts with Teheran. This move infuriated pro-Israel activists in Washington and led AIPAC to release a rare public statement attacking the administration for agreeing to the delay. Though Rice was not specifically mentioned in the statement, she was the main force pushing to allow the Russians a few more months for diplomacy.
The administration sees the delay in a different light. According to sources in touch with US policy-makers on the Iran issue, the willingness to wait a few more months before taking Iran to the Security Council will prove to be a smart move. The idea behind it is to garner a more united international front against Iran and prove that every attempt was made to find a diplomatic solution before moving down the UN sanctions road. The administration points to Rice's success on the Lebanese issue as an example of the positive outcome of American cooperation with the Europeans (France, in this case) - and of the way in which spending time and making an effort on working with other countries can lead to results.
This does not convince the Israelis and their supporters, who see the Iranian nuclear clock ticking, literally and figuratively, like a time-bomb.
Furthermore, diplomatic sources in Washington say it is not only Rice's need to build bridges to Europe that is holding back US action against Iran. Another factor has to do with the shifting of senior positions in the administration.
During the first Bush administration, it was undersecretary of state John Bolton who led the fight against Iran's nuclear program. Bolton was known for his tough style, and put it to use to make the US act on the Iran issue. If Colin Powell was too slow or too cautious in dealing with the issue, Bolton would always find an ear at the National Security Council and the White House.
Now John Bolton is the US ambassador to the UN. The Iranian issue is being dealt with by officials close to Rice who are far from presenting any opposition to her views. Nor is there any of the previous wiggle-room between State Department and the National Security Council that was maneuverable during Bush's first term.
So, has Rice become soft on the issues important to Israel? Probably not.
But the move from her old office on Pennsylvania Avenue to the State Department on C Street is more significant than the five-minute walk between the two places. As secretary of state, Rice is now hearing other voices and looking at the world picture from a different angle. No more unilateralism, but rather working with allies and friends to solve world problems. No more hands-off, "let them fight each other" approach, but active engagement and a little pressure when needed.
It is still the same Rice, but wearing a different hat. And that is something many of Israel's supporters are finding hard to get used to.