US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to arrive here Sunday for 24 hours during which she will participate in ceremonies marking a decade since Yitzhak Rabin's assassination. During this period, she is scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. EU Middle East envoy Marc Otte, speaking Wednesday night before Amir Peretz's stunning defeat of Shimon Peres in the Labor Party primary, said that he expected "gentle" pressure on both Sharon and Abbas. The "gentle" pressure on Sharon, Otte said, would likely be to nudge him to fulfill commitments made earlier in the year at Sharm e-Sheikh to release Palestinian prisoners, open roadblocks, and transfer West Bank towns to Palestinian control. The "gentle" pressure on Abbas, he said, would be to do more to crack down on terror. The reason for only gentle pressure on both sides, Otte explained, was because everyone understood that both the Israelis and the Palestinians - scheduled to hold legislative elections in January - are in an election mode, and during an election season there was only so much one could realistically ask. For instance, it would be difficult for Rice to twist Sharon's arm on the settlement outpost issue now knowing that he was facing a huge challenge in his party from his right. Likewise, she would be unlikely to press Abbas too much on dismantling Hamas, knowing that this would not do much to enhance his stature on the Palestinian street before the elections there. And all this was true before Peretz beat Peres and, it seems certain, moved the elections up considerably. The operative assumption in diplomatic circles until Thursday morning when the Labor Party election results came in was that "nothing would move" in the Middle East diplomatic process until after the elections. The US goals until the elections were considered modest: incremental progress, moving things along regarding the border crossings, getting Israel to lift roadblocks, convincing the Palestinians to take some action against terrorism, some confidence-building measures by both sides - but little real anticipation for any major diplomatic initiatives until after the elections in both Israel and the PA were over. And with the Israeli elections formally scheduled for November 2006, that would mean essentially a diplomatic stalemate for about a year. Peretz's victory and his pledge Thursday morning to pull Labor out of the government changed the equation dramatically. Instead of elections in November, they are now likely to be held in the Spring. On the face of it, this is something that should put smiles on the face of US and EU officials who want to see progress on the diplomatic front. Early elections means that the "do nothing" period would be significantly reduced to four or five months, rather than 11 or 12. But the smiles were not so readily apparent Thursday. One Western diplomatic official said Thursday that judging by current polls, it is likely that the second largest party after the elections, and the party that Sharon - who is widely expected to win the elections either as head of the Likud or some new party - would have to take in as a coalition party would be some combination right-wing NRP/National Union conglomeration. In this case, the official said, Sharon's hands would be tied, and the diplomatic process would likely come to a complete standstill. But the world does not like to see a standstill in the Middle East, and such a quagmire would likely mean that the gentle pressure being applied now would be replaced by much heavier pressure both from the US and the EU. Nine months from now, Sharon may look back with longing on the days when Rice arrived for a brief 24 hours and leveled only "gentle" pressure.
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|More about:||Condoleezza Rice, Mahmoud Abbas, Shimon Peres, Ariel Sharon|