Rice swapped rhetoric for rhetoric

CAIRO — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a deal with Arab leaders this week: Washington will show an interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Arabs will say they support the new US strategy for Iraq.

But the actions on both sides of the deal are largely cosmetic or rhetorical, because the parties are either unable or unwilling to deliver, Arab analysts and diplomats say.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Rice arranged plans for another meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

And, during a Middle East tour this week, she also said the Quartet of international mediators — the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union — would meet again in February to discuss ideas for getting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process back on track.

Such meetings, which have happened on and off over the past six years of violence and diplomatic stalemate, fall far short of what is needed to bring the two sides closer to a permanent settlement, the analysts say.

“Every time the United States needs the Arab world, it suddenly discovers an interest in the Palestinian question,” said former Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Maher.

“But it’s intermittent and skin deep. I have not seen lasting interest and nobody will take them seriously until they take a strong stand with the Israelis,” he added.

“The logic of the deal is sound but when you look at the conditions on the ground, the situation does not lend itself to any success,” added Walid Kazziha, professor of political science at the American University in Cairo.

Egypt, Jordan and some major European governments are pressing for a quick jump to negotiations on details of a future Palestinian state, including its borders. That approach could abandon the 2003 roadmap peace plan which sets out a programme of confidence-building steps as a prelude to talks on what diplomats call final-status issues.

But the United States continues to oppose the shift in emphasis and has shown no sign that it is willing to propose compromises between Israel and the Palestinians, as former President Bill Clinton did in his last years in office.

Limited influence

With Olmert and Abbas both facing serious challenges within their own communities, it is doubtful much progress will come from the various meetings, the analysts said.

In Iraq, Arab governments with Sunni Muslim leaders have limited influence and are unable to change the course of the conflict unless the United States changes tack too, they said.

“There’s a major difficulty in that much of what is going on is influenced by Iran. The Americans have a handle on that but they don’t have the will to use it,” said Kazziha.

President George W. Bush has repeatedly rejected advice that he open contacts with Iran about Iraq, his thinking apparently influenced by people who want confrontation with Tehran.

Rice’s main prize during her Middle East tour was uniform backing from Washington’s Sunni Arab allies that Iranian influence in the region should be curbed.

The Bush administration has also failed to extract from its Shiite Muslim allies in the Iraqi government the kind of concessions which the Saudis or other Arab governments could put to their Sunni friends in Iraq, Kazziha said.

“If the Shiites are not forthcoming, why would the Sunnis listen to what the Saudis have to say?” he asked.

Maher said: “What is needed is a change of policy by the United States … That needs dialogue with the Iranians and the Syrians and they refuse to do that.” Egypt, the most populous Arab state and one of the most supportive of Bush’s new strategy in Iraq, has almost nothing to offer the United States in Iraq, the analysts said.

At the most, Egyptian expressions of support for the strategy merely help Bush against his domestic critics while widening the gap between the Egyptian government and the public, which is largely opposed to any US presence in Iraq.

Mohammad Sayed Said, deputy director of a Cairo think tank, said he thought the deal that Rice arranged was unfair and imbalanced because the US promise to revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians was so vague.

But he included in the deal a commitment by Arab governments to suffocate the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, which controls the Palestinian Cabinet but has hardly been able to govern because of US and European sanctions.

“The Americans want Hamas entirely out and they may go as far as pushing for military confrontation,” he said.” “The Arab states will have to pay a heavy price — destroying the Hamas government and reducing Hamas’ ability to obstruct any peace agreements that are reached,” he added.

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