By Glenn Kessler and Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 24, 2007
When the Middle East peace conference kicks off Tuesday in Annapolis, President Bush will deliver the opening speech and also conduct three rounds of personal diplomacy with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Such an active role is notable for a president who has never visited Israel while in office, who has made only one trip to Egypt and Jordan to promote peace efforts, and who has left the task of relaunching the peace process largely in the hands of his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice.
Rice logged 100,000 miles shuttling back and forth to the Middle East eight times over the past year, telling Israeli and Arab officials that despair can lead to radicalism, and that a generation of Arab youth may be lost if there is no progress on a Palestinian state. "Failure is not an option," Rice has often declared.
Her efforts thus far have yielded this one-day meeting in Annapolis. But Arab officials are skeptical that the conference will amount to much, in part because Bush has remained relatively silent on the matter since he announced the peace talks this summer, said Daniel C. Kurtzer, who served as Bush's ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005. "You don't get a sense that he's invested in it," Kurtzer said. "Nobody associates President Bush with this policy."
The prospects for the talks received a boost yesterday when Arab League nations -- including Saudi Arabia, a critical player -- agreed to send high-level representatives to Annapolis. Now, on the eve of the conference, Rice's desire to show forward movement on the Israeli-Palestinian front may test her seven-year partnership with Bush, with many in the Middle East watching to see whether the president demonstrates that Rice's passion reflects his own.
Rice said publicly this week that her goal is to wrap up a peace deal by the end of the Bush presidency. But people who have spoken to Bush in recent weeks say he has made it clear that he has no intention of trying to force a peace settlement on the parties. The president's fight against terrorism has given him a sense of kinship with Israel over its need for security, and he remains skeptical that, in the end, the Palestinians will make the compromises necessary for a peace deal.
The Israeli-Palestinian talks will be the first substantive negotiations between the two sides in seven years, since the collapse of talks in the waning days of the Clinton administration. Bush was disdainful of President Bill Clinton's hands-on approach and refused to meet with Yasser Arafat, insisting that the Palestinians choose representatives untainted by terrorism. Though Bush became the first U.S. president to explicitly call for a Palestinian state, he focused mainly on other priorities in the Middle East, particularly the war in Iraq.
"If the president thinks this is going to be a priority," Kurtzer said, "he has got to get behind his own policy and let his own bureaucracy know this is critical."
Administration officials bristle at the perception that the United States disengaged from the issue during Bush's tenure, saying that the conditions have not been ripe for a new peace initiative until recently. They cite the rising regional influence of Iran, which they say has caused the United States' Arab allies to be more supportive of Washington's efforts to solve the long-festering dispute.
"This notion that somehow we've been sitting on our hands and there's been no diplomacy for 6 1/2 years in the Middle East is just complete hogwash," national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said in an interview.
Rice "doesn't freelance," said Philip D. Zelikow, who served as Rice's counselor during her first two years as secretary. "When she makes moves, she makes them with the president behind her." But Zelikow acknowledged that the imagery of presidential participation is important. "It is a legitimate concern, and the administration will have to address it," he said.
When Bush first asked Rice to take over the State Department after the 2004 elections, during a weekend at Camp David, she quizzed him on only one policy issue: Was he willing to support the creation of a Palestinian state? The president gave an affirmative answer, which was important to her, according to people familiar with the conversation.
"I wouldn't be doing this if he weren't deeply committed to it," Rice told reporters last week. "I am his secretary of state."
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."