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Rice Eyes Mideast Peace

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
Updated: January 17, 2007

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Just less than a year after Hamas claimed victory in Palestinian elections, fighting between rival factions in Gaza increasingly resembles a low-level civil war (Telegraph), with tit-for-tat killings and abductions a weekly occurrence. Enter U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whose tour of the region (TIME) aims to extinguish Palestinian violence while tending the embers of the Mideast peace process.

The top U.S. diplomat has her work cut out for her. In recent weeks, prospects for a power-sharing agreement between the dominant Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, gave way to internecine violence, with the two sides’ leaders “behaving like rival gang chiefs” (Daily Star). The Bush administration, meanwhile, intends to provide Fatah security forces with $86 million (WSJ) in an effort to bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and counter Iran’s support for Hamas. U.S. Ambassador to Israel Richard Jones defends the move, saying “by restoring the balance (NPR), we will help restore security in the region."

Rice’s meetings with regional leaders appear to have borne some fruit; on Monday she announced that she would hold a joint meeting (NYT) with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert within a month. But before any serious dialogue can take place between Israelis and Palestinians, the Palestinians must overcome the internal power struggle (ISN) that undermined previous efforts. Toronto's Globe & Mail explains “that unless something dramatic happens between now and the not-yet-announced date of that meeting, the trio will have little to talk about.” As Mideast expert and CFR Senior Fellow Steven A. Cook tells CFR.org's Bernard Gwertzman, progress on Palestinian-Israeli issues is inextricably linked to developments in Iraq.

Palestinian divisions present a major obstacle. Khaled Meshaal, Hamas’ exiled leader, said from Damascus that “Palestinians have no option but dialogue” (Reuters). Top Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan tells Haaretz the solution to Palestinian violence “is the democratic one: elections. In the end we will have to go forward together.” But according to Dennis Ross, the former top U.S. negotiator in the Middle East, Fatah members don’t view unity as an option (FT): “In their words, it is nothing less than a struggle pitting those who believe that their future should be governed by a secular rule of law and coexistence on the one hand and on the other those who see themselves pursuing an Islamist agenda."

Weak leadership on the Israeli side, too, has thwarted peace-building efforts. Nevertheless, Mideast expert David Makovsky writes of an Israeli political climate amenable to negotiation, which in turn could strengthen Abbas. Haaretz reported Tuesday that Israeli and Syrian representatives spent two years in secret negotiations on a possible peace agreement. Both parties deny any government role in the talks (NYT), but it nevertheless bolsters the image of an Israel ready to talk. A Boston Globe editorial suggests the current interest in dialogue exists only “because conditions for negotiating a peace agreement will only deteriorate further if the parties are not brought to the table soon.” Yet Secretary Rice has more incentive than just a ticking clock. Makovsky suggests she may view this as an opportunity to improve on her legacy, which to date is “lacking diplomatic achievement.” Many believe a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could bolster U.S. prospects in Iraq, an idea put forth in the Iraq Study Group report.

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