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What was it about the Gaza border-crossing agreement reached this week that made the American media awestruck, break into newscasts with special reports and put the Israeli-Palestinian conflict back on the front page?
One thing's for sure: It was not the significance of the agreement itself. Important as it may be for the Palestinians and for the future of the two-state vision, the US-brokered agreement is far from historic and can almost be considered a technical matter.
What is of historic value is the American role in reaching this agreement. Suddenly, after five years of sticking to a strict hands-off policy, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is delving into the minutest of details, pressuring the Palestinians, cornering the Israelis and making the deal come through. Once again, the corridors are bustling with advisers and aids running back and forth, papers are being drafted and redrafted, and meetings are getting drawn out way past midnight.
This is what US diplomacy in the Middle East used to look like. But now it strikes observers as a dramatic change in policy. It seems so uncharacteristic of the Bush administration.
Even more dramatic - it is reminiscent of the Clinton era.
When George W. Bush entered the White House, one of the cornerstones of his foreign policy was not to manage other nation's conflicts. According to Bush, the purpose of American foreign policy is to set forth principles and leave it to the parties themselves to apply them.
In a sense, this policy was crafted as a reaction to the Bill Clinton approach, to the hands-on micromanagerial attitude that led the former president to Camp David in 2000, running between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat, trying to make a deal. Bush and his advisers used the Camp David example to explain why the new president was not going to get into the business of brokering agreements. It would only cause him to waste political capital - just as Clinton wasted his own - in those long and frustrating days at Camp David.
The new administration was able to stick to these guidelines. Even during the toughest times of the intifada, Bush and the secretary of state managed to resist the temptation to jump in with shuttle diplomacy and suggested agreements. The work on the ground was left to whomever's turn it was to fill the thankless job of Mideast envoy, and the political capital remained safe in the bank in Washington.
In its second term, the Bush administration took the same approach, with Condoleezza Rice increasing the frequency of her visits to the region, but not changing the style - a lot of listening and very little arm-wrestling. Rice steered away from the Sharm e-Sheikh summit in February 2005; she never implemented the decision to send an American team to discuss the issue of building in existing settlements; and when the disengagement plan was in its final stages; she did not use the power of US diplomacy to reach an agreement on the border-crossings - the very agreement she eventually brought about two months later.
SO WHAT changed this week that caused Rice to abandon the declared Bush tactic and take on the role of mediator in the conflict?
Rice's aids, briefing American reporters traveling with her, said it was simply the fact that the opportunity was there. Both sides were so close to an agreement that it would have been a pity to fly off to Korea without pushing them one step forward.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli made an effort to play down the novelty of Secretary Rice's approach, saying the US was always active in brokering agreements between Israelis and Palestinians. He added that American involvement in reaching the Rafah deal was no more than a "continuation of the United States' strong commitment to facilitating Israeli-Palestinian cooperation, to helping the parties address and resolve issues that need to be resolved, and - most important - to enable them to make the decisions they need to make."
The driving force behind Rice's decision to take the risk and stay in Israel to close the border deal was Quartet special envoy James Wolfensohn. The former head of the World Bank had reached the point where he could no longer put up with the closure of the Gaza Strip that threatened to undermine all his efforts to rebuild the Palestinian economy and give hope to the residents of Gaza. Wolfensohn, who is known to be unbiased and straightforward, wrote a memo to Rice in which he described in clear terms the risks that the whole process would face if the border problem was not solved. In private conversations Wolfensohn also made it clear that if this issue were not resolved, he would turn down the president's offer to extend his mission in the Middle East.
Rice took Wolfensohn's threats seriously and made the deal happen. In his press briefing after the agreement was reached, the special envoy stressed just how important the direct involvement of the Secretary was in solving the border problem.
"If you are an envoy of the quartet you have a certain amount of possibilities in negotiations," he said. "If you are the secretary of state of the United States, I would have to say, there is a little more clout associated with it. And to push it over the edge one needs not envoys, but secretaries of state."
The problem is that secretaries of state who are willing to "push it over the edge" are hard to come by. The Rice involvement in brokering one deal in the Middle East does not necessarily mean that the Bush administration is changing its policy and will now adopt the practice of mediating international crises.
RICE TOOK a risk this week in Jerusalem. She used precious political capital to pressure both sides into signing an agreement and won, but Washington is full of former presidents and secretaries of state who emerged broke from the Middle East casino. The few success stories, such as the Camp David accord, only emphasize the long list of failures of American leaders and top diplomats in getting Israelis and Arabs to agree - and disappointment when agreements reached after hours of discussions and weeks of shuttling never reached the implementation stage.
Rice's gamble was well appreciated in Washington. The media spoke about the significant achievement of the US diplomatic effort and editorials praising the Secretary's bold move abounded. Such encouragement could push the Bush administration to further active involvement in the region.
The administration has once again hit an all-time low in public support. And, as if that weren't enough, Bush suffered another blow this week when the Republican-led Senate passed a bill demanding tri-monthly reports from the administration on the progress in Iraq and calling on the Iraqis to take control of their country.
For Bush, whose approval ratings are similar to those of Richard Nixon in the worst days of his presidency - and whose own party members turning their back on the war in Iraq - the Rafah agreement was a breath of fresh air.
In a strange way, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might turn out to be the best place for Bush to invest his capital. It is true that this conflict has been a source of anguish to most of those who ever tried to deal with it, but this week, at least, the conflict was also the only source of positive news concerning American foreign policy - something that may just make the hands-on approach an attractive option for the administration.
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