In Search for Peace, a Shrinking White House Role

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 2, 2008

When Palestinians broke through the barrier dividing the Gaza Strip and Egypt in January and streamed across the border by the tens of thousands, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak faced a moment of crisis. His phone soon rang, but the world leader offering help on the other end was not President Bush -- it was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Mubarak took the call, resulting in the first such contact between leaders of the two nations since relations were severed nearly three decades ago.

The conversation signaled a growing rapprochement between Egypt, which receives nearly $2 billion in annual aid from Washington, and Iran, a country that the Bush administration has tried to isolate as a possible threat to U.S. interests in the region.

As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice heads back to the Middle East this week, three months after Bush hosted a peace conference bringing together Israelis and Arabs in Annapolis, prospects for peace have shifted dramatically. There has been little clear movement in peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, while the Iranian-backed militant group Hamas has shown increasingly that it can set the region's agenda.

Hamas rockets have continued to rain down on Israeli towns, prompting deadly counterattacks by Israel amid increasing speculation that Israel will invade the narrow coastal strip housing 1.5 million Palestinians that it abandoned just two years ago.

Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator, said that key players in the region are moving beyond the Bush administration. "The feeling is that if you keep the flash points on a lower or somewhat higher flame, it will give you more cards when a new administration comes in," he said, speaking in a phone interview from Israel. "Everyone is sucking up to the Iranians," he added.

The signs of American irrelevance are apparent throughout the region. Even Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, hailed as a potential peacemaker by the Bush administration, mused last week to the Jordanian newspaper al-Dustour that in the future it might be necessary to return to armed struggle against Israel. And Syria, which received an unexpected invitation to Annapolis, believes that the peace summit was "an exercise in public relations" and that Bush has no interest in peace, as Syria's ambassador to Washington, Imad Moustapha put it last week.

Rice's first stop, on Tuesday, will be Cairo, where she will consult with Mubarak and other Egyptian officials on Gaza. She then will shuttle between Israeli and Palestinian officials on Tuesday and Wednesday, seeking to head off a deadly confrontation between Israel and Hamas while pushing for progress in the nascent peace talks.

The architecture of Annapolis established by Rice includes four key tracks, all of which are supposed to operate simultaneously: high-level talks on "final status" issues such as the division of Jerusalem; incremental changes in security, Jewish settlements on the West Bank and roadblocks hindering Palestinian movement; jump-starting the Palestinian economy; and greater Arab involvement. The final-status talks have been shrouded in secrecy, while little has happened on the other tracks, participants said. The number of roadblocks has increased, according to U.N. estimates.

"Politically, I have not heard anything that is good," a senior Arab diplomat said.

Organizers of a Palestinian investment conference scheduled for late May, designed to bring Arab businessmen to Bethlehem, have expressed concern that senior Arab executives will be forced to wait for hours in humiliating checks at roadblocks, potentially spoiling the mood for investment.

The lack of movement has added to the skepticism, even in Israel. A poll published in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth last week showed that 69 percent of Israelis surveyed believed the talks would not bring peace, while 78 percent believed the talks were being held only for political reasons.

During a recent visit to Washington, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad charged that Israel has "not done a thing materially on the ground to help my government." Israeli officials counter that Israel has taken steps to bolster the Abbas government, but that some efforts -- such as new restrictions on settlement growth -- cannot be publicized because of the tenuous political situation in Israel.

Ghaith al-Omari, a former adviser to Abbas and now advocacy director for the American Task Force on Palestine, faulted the Bush administration for not nurturing a process that it started. He noted that the administration has appointed three generals to assess various aspects of the issue, but that few people in the region understand their roles. Rice's two-day visit this week is her first substantive trip since the conference in November.

"There is no push from the Americans," he said. "We are still waiting to see what they will do. It is surprising how little has happened. If you guys are going to run out of steam, why create all these expectations?"

"It is a big question mark," said Martin Indyk, director of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. "The impression one gets is that this administration is out of juice."

Most observers give the administration six months, until the Democratic and Republican conventions, to show that progress on the peace talks is possible. But the Annapolis conference has been increasingly overshadowed by the conflict over Gaza.

The Annapolis talks were designed to bolster Abbas so he could overcome the challenge from Hamas. In 2006, the militant group unexpectedly won Palestinian elections that the Bush administration had supported, beating Abbas's Fatah party, and a unity government between the two sides went sour when Hamas seized control of Gaza last June. The administration had hoped that if Abbas could seal a peace deal, it would give him the popular support to oust Hamas, which has called for Israel's destruction.

Neither Hamas nor Iran was invited to Annapolis but, as Ahmadinejad's courting of Mubarak suggests, the administration's effort to divide the region into "moderate" and "extremist" camps has not succeeded. After the phone call between the two men, Iran's foreign minister declared that diplomatic ties with Cairo would soon be restored.

Meanwhile, Hamas has gained popularity as Israel has attempted an economic blockade of Gaza. Hamas bulldozers burst through the Gaza-Egyptian border in January, while Hamas rockets last week reached Ashkelon, an Israeli city of 120,000 that generally had been safe from Hamas attacks.

Egypt would like to arrange a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas while giving the Palestinian Authority control over border crossings, Arab diplomats said. But those would be difficult negotiations as public pressure increases in Israel for a ground invasion of Gaza. In the best-case scenario for Israel, that would wipe out Hamas's leadership, but it could also prove as vexing as Israel's war against Hezbollah in 2006.

Some argue that Hamas's strength can no longer be ignored. Before the Annapolis conference, a group of U.S. foreign policy specialists -- including former national security advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton -- wrote Bush to argue that "a genuine dialogue with the organization is far preferable to its isolation." But State Department spokesman Tom Casey said Friday, "It's pretty hard to say that Hamas has a legitimate role to play in this process if their main policy is to promote terror."

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