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(photo credit: AP [file])
In the second week of October, President Bush sent his secretary of state to the Middle East to make one last big push at getting Israel, the Palestinians and the neighboring Arab states to a US-sponsored summit, where the parties could finally get down to the brass tacks of discussing a final peace agreement.
And the trip was a resounding success.
But that Bush was George Herbert Walker, the secretary of state was James Baker, the conference was in Madrid and the year 1991.
Almost exactly 16 years later to the day, another President Bush is dispatching his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, on a very similar mission, to bring most of the same parties to a meeting in Annapolis, Maryland, next month to discuss many of the same issues.
Rice might take the coincidental timing of her visit here, which begins Sunday in Jerusalem and will also take her to Egypt and Jordan, as a good omen.
Baker's trip, which was also fraught with the possibility of major disappointment, turned out to be spectacularly successful, as the tough-talking Texas lawyer and Bush confident managed to convince (browbeat might be the better word) Israel, the Palestinians, Jordan and Syria to sit together for the first time. Although in the end the Madrid conference was not much more than a glorified photo-op, it undoubtedly set the stage for some of the breakthroughs that occurred later in the decade.
But Baker, known in his day as a shrewd poker player, came to the Middle East on his eighth and final pre-summit trip holding a very strong hand. The US was riding high in the region, having asserted itself diplomatically and militarily by assembling and leading the broad multinational force that evicted Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait. That victory also meant that George H.W. Bush was popular at home, with most pundits already predicting a likely second term in office.
While US success against Iraq had empowered Baker, the Bush administration's current entanglements there, together with George W. Bush's lame-duck status, means Rice comes here next week holding a far weaker set of cards.
Her one advantage over Baker, who had to deal with a stubborn prime minister Yitzhak Shamir and a local Palestinian leadership that was merely a proxy for Yasser Arafat, is that this time the two sides are already talking substance with each other.
But Rice's predicament is clearly evident in her lack of leverage with the rest of the guest list. President Bashar Assad's comments on Thursday that Syria will most likely not attend the summit, even if invited, is a slap in the face to Washington that his father, Hafez, didn't dare risk in 1991.
Assad's presence in Annapolis would anyway have likely been more of a hindrance than help in the main business at hand of moving the Israeli-Palestinian track along. Not so the Saudis; indeed, the presence of Saudi Arabia at the meeting next month would be a genuine step forward, even if not much else is accomplished there.
The Saudis, though, haven't yet consented to come and, significantly, Rice's agenda next week doesn't include a stop in Riyadh.
Questioned on this point Thursday, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack vaguely responded: "We're in contact with the Saudi government on this, as well as other issues. I'm sure there will be a time that she will think it's important to travel to Riyadh, and she'll do that when she thinks the time's right."
Presumably that time will be right when Rice can go there with the pre-meeting Israeli-Palestinian joint statement she will be trying to hammer out next week with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Yet whether that statement will meet the minimum conditions the Saudis have set in the past for engaging Israel directly, especially on the future status of Jerusalem, is looking less likely each day.
One close observer of Rice in Washington said the secretary was coming to Jerusalem in bad need of some good news, pointing especially to the setback she had Thursday when the House Foreign Affairs Committee defied the White House - and Rice's personal pleas - to pass a controversial resolution calling for the Turkish killings of Armenians in World War I to be designated as "genocide."
"That resolution is a real headache for the administration, and Rice personally," said the observer. "She's now got to be assuaging Ankara at a time when the Turks have their troops sitting on the border with Iraq, maybe even getting ready to cross over and go after the PKK forces in the Kurdish areas there."
Unfortunately for Rice, with Olmert and Abbas encountering increasing opposition in their own ranks to even hint at making the kinds of concessions in the joint statement that would add substance to the Annapolis talks, it's looking unlikely that the secretary will find much solace here.
Asked whether the administration has a "Plan B" in place if Annapolis starts shaping up to be a disappointment, State Department spokesman McCormack also said Thursday: "Plan B is to make plan A work. The idea here is that failure is not an option. The stakes are too high for the people of the region. So Plan B: Make Plan A work."
And Plan A looks like it needs a lot more work to even make it to the starting point.
There's still time, however, and since Bush first called for the meeting this summer, Rice has made not even half the number of trips here that Baker did on the road to Madrid. So with about a month and a half left before Annapolis takes place as scheduled, we're likely to be enjoying the company of Condoleezza Rice here in Jerusalem for more than just during the coming week.