On Mideast Trip, Rice To Try a New Formula

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 23, 2007

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's new math for the Middle East may include the following: Four plus two plus four. The unknown, as Rice heads to the region today, is whether this will add up to the beginnings of peace -- or to more stalemates and disappointment.

Rice has staked her final years as secretary on trying to make progress on the creation of a Palestinian state. But her goals have been thwarted by the changing realities on the ground. Her effort to promote a regular dialogue between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, for instance, on the contours of a Palestinian state ran afoul of Olmert's precarious political position (including a 3 percent approval rating) and of Abbas's decision to strike a unity accord with the militant group Hamas -- a move that angered Israelis.

Now, diplomats and U.S. officials say, Rice is headed on her fourth Middle East trip in four months with a new game plan. She still wants to coax the Israelis into giving the Palestinians what she calls a "political horizon" -- the glimmerings of a Palestinian state. But, at the same time, she wants the Arabs to also sketch a "political horizon" for the Israelis -- the beginnings of recognition to give the Israeli government more room to strike a deal.

Rice plans to meet tomorrow in Aswan, Egypt, with representatives of the Arab Quartet -- Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Members of the Arab Quartet play an important role in Middle East peace efforts, helping, for example, to train and equip Palestinian security forces.

The Arab Quartet is the first "four" in Rice's diplomatic formula. These countries are major players in the Arab League, which will meet next week in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Diplomats expect the league to reaffirm a peace offer made to Israel in 2002. The offer promised recognition of Israel if it returned to 1967 borders and allowed for the return of Palestinian refugees. Israeli officials have huge problems with the refugee demand -- they believe Palestinians should settle in a Palestinian state -- but in recent months, under U.S. prodding, they have expressed support for a vaguer version of the offer once articulated by Saudi King Abdullah.

The Arab Initiative "speaks to the clear need for an Israeli-Arab reconciliation to accompany the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," Rice said last week.

The "two" in Rice's formula are Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Rice plans to shuttle between the two sides this weekend, seeking further cooperation. Abbas told Israeli television yesterday that "a framework" had been reached with Israel, with Egyptian assistance, that could lead to the release of an Israeli soldier held captive in Gaza. The seizure of Gilad Shalit last June has been a stumbling block in talks between the two sides.

Rice is also slightly easing the U.S. stance on the Palestinian unity government. Abbas's deal had blindsided the Bush administration, but now that it is a reality, U.S. officials have suggested contacts with certain Palestinian ministers -- once ruled out -- might be permitted in the interests of peace. But Rice must tread carefully to avoid a public spat with Israel.

The final "four" is the Quartet, the monitoring group made up of the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia. It sets policy on aid to the Palestinians -- and provides an international imprimatur to Rice's efforts.

One of Rice's possible goals this spring, diplomats said, is to bring together the Quartet, the Arab Quartet, Israel and Palestinian leader Abbas for a single meeting. This would publicly bring together Israeli and Saudi officials for the first time since 2000; such a high-profile meeting between the Jewish state and the keeper of Islam's holiest sites would be considered a breakthrough -- especially by Israelis -- and a coup for Rice.

"It's not easy to get all parties headed in the right direction," President Bush told reporters yesterday. "But it's necessary work for this country, and it's necessary for our secretary of state . . . to be moving the process forward."

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