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Eyes Will Be on Bush At Talks on Mideast

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice joins President Bush in his meeting at the White House with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice joins President Bush in his meeting at the White House with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. (By Charles Dharapak -- Associated Press)

At Annapolis, U.S. officials hope the Israelis and Palestinians will announce that they will start negotiating a permanent settlement of the conflict, while at the same time taking reciprocal steps to ease tensions on the ground. The Israelis, for instance, last week announced a halt to new settlement construction while the Palestinians are trying to show that they can maintain order in the West Bank city of Nablus.

Indeed, the push to negotiate a final settlement, before Palestinian political and security institutions are built, marks a significant shift for the administration. It also marks a victory for Rice, who for the past year has said she wants to give the Palestinians a "political horizon" -- a vision of the contours of a Palestinian state.

During Bush's first term, when Rice was his national security adviser, she had a secret role as the White House's "back channel" to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, frequently bypassing the State Department. She even helped the Israelis draft Sharon's plan to withdraw settlers from the Gaza Strip.

Flynt Leverett, Rice's former top aide on Middle East issues, said she indicated to him that she wanted to be bolder in helping the Palestinian side of the equation but folded in the face of intense opposition from Vice President Cheney, then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other conservatives. In fact, Leverett said that he and State Department officials pressed for a political horizon back in 2002, making the case internally for the policy she is now advocating. "She has had that option literally in front of her since the first part of 2002," he said.

Meanwhile, then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was usually on the losing end of the argument.

"Powell often pushed for a major U.S. diplomatic investment in Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy, but the president didn't approve," said Douglas J. Feith, a former defense undersecretary who was intimately involved in battles over Middle East policy during Bush's first term. "Now, apparently, the president considers the time right for an experiment, and he's letting Condi try things he was not willing to allow Powell to do."

Within the Arab world, Bush has been seen as fervently pro-Israeli. In 2004, to facilitate Israel's departure from Gaza, Bush gave Sharon letters that conceded key points on settlements and Palestinian refugees to the Israelis, without corresponding concessions for the Palestinians. Leverett recalled that, in 2002, Bush said in the White House situation room that once a Palestinian leadership was democratically elected, it would concentrate on providing services to its constituents and "you would get a Palestinian leadership less hung up" on such issues as borders and Jerusalem.

Leverett, who has become a fierce Bush critic, said he was shocked at Bush's comment at the time. "It was one of the most profoundly ignorant statements anyone has ever uttered on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," he said.

But administration officials think Bush's close association with Israel will provide benefits once the hard bargaining starts. One senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the Israelis "trust this president, and they don't know who will follow," adding that "if they're going to do something that involves some risk -- and I think they view it as risk -- they've got to do it with this man in the White House."

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