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US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Israel on Saturday to create a "political horizon," as she has put it, for Israeli and Palestinian peacemaking. The horizon as viewed from Rice's taillights here, though, looks a lot more like that seen in the murky twilight after a departed sun than at daybreak, when there are rays of light.
Ever since the announcement of the Mecca accord between the Fatah and Hamas factions, observers here have wondered what Rice can get from meetings designed to start discussion about the nature of a final settlement. And many have answered: not much.
Rice herself acknowledged to reporters before leaving for the Middle East on Thursday that her efforts would be "obviously more complicated because of the uncertainties surrounding the [Palestinian Authority] national unity government."
Still, she said, "it would be a mistake not to take advantage" of PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's commitment to the road map and Quartet principles "to work toward a realization of a political horizon for the Palestinian people so that the Palestinian people know what is at stake for them in the future." The idea being that that will make them more likely to take the steps necessary to move toward peace.
But Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East, was much harsher in his assessment of the post-Mecca reality, delivered Wednesday at a hearing he convened on Rice's upcoming trip.
"The subcommittee had hoped to examine those realistic and productive measures that the parties, directly and indirectly involved with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, might have taken to restore a sense of hope and maybe even make some progress towards peace," he explained. "But in light of the Mecca accord which, if implemented, will create a Hamas-Fatah unity government for the Palestinian Authority, I'm not sure what's left to discuss."
Ackerman maintained that much of the point of creating a "political horizon" of the contours of a Palestinian-Israeli accord, as Rice wants to work on this week, is to boost Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen.
But, Ackerman said, "What has Abu Mazen done to strengthen himself? He's capitulated to Hamas. The Mecca accord neither strengthens him nor helps the cause of peace."
Testifying before Ackerman's panel, David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy also offered a bleak, if politer, assessment.
"It is critical to understand how the recent Mecca summit has undercut this effort" of creating a political horizon, said Makovsky, director of the institute's Project on the Middle East Peace Process. "It is hard to escape the conclusion that Abbas has legitimized an unrepentant Hamas... it is very possible the distinctions between Abbas and Hamas have blurred."
And that, he said, means there is less incentive for the international community to bolster Abbas at the expense of Hamas.
"The rationale of Rice's political horizon initiative was being done precisely for this purpose, namely to demonstrate to Palestinian moderates that it is Abbas and not Hamas who can reap major diplomatic gains," according to Makovsky. "Even if Abbas is willing to make a deal, Mecca has proved to many that he will not break from Hamas."
Makovsky's colleague at the Washington Institute, Dennis Ross, Middle East negotiator under Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush, suggested looking for smaller gains, since a Hamas-led PA won't be willing to compromise on issues such as refugees and Israel won't be able to make concessions to a PA that doesn't recognize its right to exist.
"The political options for peacemaking between Israelis and Palestinians have been reduced. And Rice's efforts have to be guided by what is possible, not by what is most desirable," Ross wrote this week in The Washington Post.
"What is logical and possible," he continued, "is intra-Palestinian peace and Palestinian-Israeli calm," in other words, a comprehensive, negotiated cease-fire.
James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute in Washington, also said Rice should be looking for gains elsewhere. He argued that while this is the wrong time for final status conversations (he compared the situation to a family in the process of breaking up planning a vacation for next summer), Rice does have a real opportunity for diplomatic movement - presented by the unity deal.
"If you want to help Abu Mazen, help make these accords work so that we don't end up with more clashes," he said, adding that the Mecca agreement did represent compromise on the part of Hamas.
He pointed to the political straits of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abu Mazen as more evidence that any talk about end goals would be a waste of time.
"I don't know what the point of it is, other than to create expectations - though I don't know if expectations were even created," he said, labeling Rice's trip "photo-op diplomacy."
Even the administration's most tangible aid to Abbas has been hampered in recent days, as Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, put a freeze on the transfer of $86 million in US funds for non-lethal training and equipping of his forces.
The recent Mecca agreement "raised additional questions" about the wisdom in allocating this money, she said.
The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America welcomed the move in light of the prospective new PA government, saying, "After recent events, including the signing of the Mecca agreement, it is of great importance that Congress delays the transfer of these funds until a more comprehensive and detailed understanding of what American taxpayers will be supporting is understood."
The Israel Policy Forum, however, had reservations about the block in funding that it sees as a key way to bolster Abbas.
"The IPF thinks that Congress should do everything it can to strengthen Abbas, and not do anything that might strengthen Hamas," the organization's spokesman, Martin Irom, said.
Lowey has asked the State Department for further information on the use of the money, and doesn't plan to release her hold on it until she has heard back, which is expected to be when Rice returns, according to Lowey's office.
Rice is also waiting on someone else, the new Palestinian government, before making judgments.
"We're going to wait until the government is formed," she said. "Whether or not we can then support the government that came out of [Mecca], I think we've been very clear that the Quartet principles have to be respected if you're going to have the kind of engagement with the government that we would hope to have. But we're going to hold our judgment until that government is actually" formed.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack actually admonished reporters for jumping too fast on the implications for the new government when they questioned him on Thursday on reports that the US will shun non-Hamas ministers as well as Hamas members.
"Let's back up," he told them. "You have a lot of blanks here to fill in. And on the basis of that lack of facts, I can't offer you an answer as to how the United States or the Quartet is going to relate to a potential government of national unity."
In the meantime, Rice did say something can be done: "It's important to inject energy and confidence into a process that really has already begun between Abu Mazen and Olmert, to try and help move that forward."
She continued, "It is more complicated with the horizon of a government that we don't yet know what it will - what its character will be. But then in the Middle East, if you wait for the perfect circumstances, I think you would probably never take the airplane."â€¢