Condi Rice 298.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice departs Washington tomorrow for a two-day trip to Israel amid Palestinian-Israeli disagreements which threaten to derail the international peace meeting scheduled for later this fall.
The current dispute has focused on whether, ahead of the meeting, the two sides will reach a detailed framework agreement on sensitive final-status issues as the Palestinians want, or merely a general declaration of principles as Prime Minister Olmert has phrased it.
The wrangling is indicative of larger disagreements about where the parties stand on final-status issues and how any agreement would be implemented. But Rice may need a concrete document about her goals for the meeting as much as the Israelis and Palestinians. Players inside and outside of Washington are waiting for an outline of where the US is headed with the get-together.
Though her visit this week is expected to be largely a maintenance trip aimed at keeping the momentum going in the run-up to the conference, some hope they'll see a clearer picture of the path Rice is staking out.
So far, basic details about the conference such as its timing and guest list remain unclear, but many in Washington say the real problem is the lack of agenda.
"There are a lot of grey zones that she could clarify. It's time to put her cards on the table with the two parties during this trip," said Tamara Wittes, a senior follow with the Washington-based Saban Center for Middle East Policy.
"We still have a lack of clarity about what this meeting is all about and what's the expected outcome," she said, pointing to questions of whether the purpose of the gathering is, for instance, to launch Israeli-Palestinian peace talks or rather to endorse something Israelis and Palestinians have already worked out.
Without clear goals, key players such as the Saudis were hesitant to come, she noted. "They have doubts about whether to walk in the door - and that's reasonable."
It's also understandable, she said, that Olmert and Abbas had different interests. Where Olmert was facing a tired and mistrustful population that was wary of any promises from Palestinians and hesitant for final status moves, Abbas wanted to deliver results to Palestinians that show a state was within reach.
"This difference of opinion was very much to be expected, because of the very different situations of these political leaders," according to Wittes. "It's the role of the mediator to bridge those gaps."
David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said it would be a "tall order" to find a formula acceptable to personalities ranging from Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal to Israeli Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
He added that the matter was complicated by Rice's desire "to avoid unrealistic expectations, so any progress between the parties is seen as such rather than falling short" since she sees the November Middle East parley as "key for her legacy as secretary of state."
Yet Aaron David Miller, a former adviser to six secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations, said progress was possible, noting the desperation of the parties - Rice's concern for achievements and the weakness of leaders Olmert and Abbas.
"Desperation can often be a very important motivator, but desperation without preparation, diplomacy and, more important, the policy foundation to make these very important decision, is usually not enough," said Miller, who recently penned The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace.
Miller would like to see a statement of US parameters, affirming the possibility of a final-status arrangement.
"In the history of the world, nobody ever washed a rented car," Miller said, "because people only wash what they own. I'm not sure that, to this day, the administration really feels it owns the Arab-Israeli peace process."
If they do, he said, there was time in the next two months before the meeting for Rice to make the serious effort needed.
Wittes was looking for signs that that's what Rice intended to do on this trip, though she said one brief visit was not enough. More trips are expected, though, ahead of the conference.
"The opportunity is absolutely there. It's certainly possible," Wittes said, adding, "It's not only up to her [Rice] and whether she's willing to put in the time. It's up to the two sides and what they're willing to do."