Rice on The Right Tracks

By David Ignatius
Friday, April 20, 2007

For the past few years, the United States has been in self-imposed diplomatic isolation in the Middle East. But two paths out of that wilderness are becoming visible, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is moving cautiously down each one.

The first path leads toward a regional solution to the nightmare problem of Iraq. Rice will take a crucial step next month when she meets with foreign ministers of Iraq's neighbors, including Iran and Syria. This regional conference, which will take place May 3-4 in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, follows a preliminary meeting last month in Baghdad that ended the U.S. diplomatic quarantine of Iran and Syria.

As she prepares for this "Iraq neighbors" meeting, Rice has been gathering advice from former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, among others. Kissinger advised her to go in "listening mode," rather than with a detailed American proposal for how the neighbors should cooperate. "Just let it happen," Kissinger is said to have urged. "Let it evolve."

Kissinger argued that at the regional gathering, Rice should seek bilateral meetings with her Iranian and Syrian counterparts, and she isn't ruling out such contacts. The agenda would probably focus on three issues that were highlighted at the preliminary meeting: borders, refugees and internal security. Her aim will be to test the proposition that none of Iraq's neighbors has an interest in seeing that nation destroyed by its present internal strife.

Rice also hopes to make a diplomatic effort to defuse growing tensions between Turkey and Iraq's Kurdish region. She appears concerned that recent threats by Turkish and Kurdish officials could create a wider crisis in northern Iraq if the situation isn't checked.

Kissinger sees a broader, three-level process of negotiations emerging on Iraq: The first level is the political dialogue taking place inside Iraq, even as the car bombs continue to explode; the second is the regional process embodied by the meeting in Egypt; the third is gathering a wider group of interested nations -- perhaps including India, Indonesia and Pakistan -- that could help stabilize Iraq as U.S. military forces are gradually withdrawn.

A second diplomatic path for Rice involves the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the long-festering wound that has afflicted the Middle East for 40 years. Here, as with Iraq, she is embracing a strategy of diplomatic engagement that the Bush administration long resisted. Indeed, in her effort to regain an honest-broker role, she has been willing to meet with Palestinian officials despite Israeli objections.

Rice took a small step this week by meeting with Salam Fayyad, the finance minister of the Palestinian "unity government" that is dominated by the militant group Hamas. She appears hopeful that ways can be found to resume U.S. financial aid to the Palestinians through Fayyad, in his role as a representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization, despite a formal ban on assistance to the Hamas-led government.

Israel had argued strenuously against such contacts. But Rice decided she would meet with Palestinian ministers if their past statements accepted Israel's right to exist in peace. Rice may expand her contacts to other Palestinian officials who meet that criterion, including Foreign Minister Ziad Abu Amr and Tourism Minister Khulud Dwaibess. This outreach reflects Rice's decision that it's more important for the United States to have influence within the Hamas-led government and the Palestinian community than to avoid any hint of indirect contact with the militant Islamic group.

Meanwhile, Rice continues a dual-track diplomatic negotiation she describes with the somewhat nebulous phrase of "the political horizon." In practice, that has meant pushing Israelis and Palestinians to discuss details for administering the Palestinian state everyone says they want in principle. The first negotiating session last week discussed such practical issues as how Palestinians would get permits to work in Israel, if there were two states; more such technical talks are planned on security, border controls and other issues.

A promising new Arab initiative is broadening this path out of the Israeli-Palestinian wilderness. With Rice's encouragement, Arab countries agreed this week to establish a working group to present details of Saudi King Abdullah's 2002 peace plan to the Israelis. So far, the group includes only Jordan and Egypt, two countries that already have diplomatic relations with Israel. But there's hope the group will expand if negotiations over the Palestinian "horizon" gather momentum. Such an Arab mission could have a powerful effect on Israeli public opinion.

Rice's past diplomatic efforts have been limited by the Bush administration's tendency to moralize foreign policy issues and to refuse the very process of dialogue with adversaries that might resolve problems. Isolation hasn't worked, and Rice is now charting the pathways out.

The writer co-hosts, with Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues athttp://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/postglobal. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.


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