Her First Middle East Foray Looks Like a Non-Starter

The Middle East figures large in the incoming US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice‘s first foreign nine-nation tour next week, and its most prominent feature is the shape of a future Palestinian state more extensive than any of her predecessors have ever dared delineate before.

(See also DEBKAfile article summarized in HOT POINTS: Rice’s “Viable Palestinian State” Would Shrink Israel out of Jordan Valley and Most of West Bank)

Last week, she laid her cards on the table: “Israel also must recognize that the Palestinian state, which is within our grasp, must be viable and contiguous – meaning with enough land to function well.”

A week earlier, she told a Senate hearing that a future Palestinian state must also be contiguous with Arab neighbors and mentioned Jordan. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington sources translate this as American diplomatic-speak for a common border with Jordan, Egypt and Syria and a territorial link between the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Moreover, in stating that “there cannot be peace in the Middle East unless the Palestinians gain a state that satisfies their aspirations”, Rice shifted Washington’s view of the root cause of global terrorism closer to the position long-held by the Europeans and Arabs that Palestinian and Islamic violence may be justified and can therefore be ameliorated.

Rice arrives in Jerusalem and the West Bank Sunday, January 6 having broadcast a clear message to Israel and prime minister Ariel Sharon: The Gaza pullout is not enough – Israel must make deeper and swifter withdrawals from territory the Palestinians want for a state of their own. She has placed responsibility for requiting Palestinian nationalist ambitions squarely on Israel’s shoulders, implying that any breakdowns of Middle East peace will be placed at the door of the Jewish state unless it meets those aspirations.

The United States is set to take this course even further next week.


Abbas cannot keep up his end


The first step is the four-way summit Tuesday, February 8 at Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh where Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak will host Sharon, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Jordan’s King Abdullah.

At the same time, it is reported by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington sources, that US intelligence’s estimates do not see Abbas enjoying a long career.

He is seen to be fighting for his life in the Palestinian leadership. The rift between him, on the one hand, and prime minister Ahmed Qureia and his own Fatah, on the other, is widening. They have thwarted his attempts to make a start on forming a government and appointing field commanders. Now, the Fatah itself is ganging up against him to defeat his candidacy in the April primaries. None of the other Palestinian groups accept his authority; neither will they listen to any suggestion of a ceasefire.

On top of this, Mubarak is furious with Abu Mazen for suddenly taking off for Moscow instead of getting down to putting his house in order.

As for substantiating Rice’s rhetoric on a viable Palestinian state within reach, Abbas’ position is judged so weak that there is not much he can deliver. At the very most, the Sharm el-Sheikh summit may yield progress towards a deal between him and Sharon on Israel-Palestinian cooperation for the Israeli withdrawals from the Gaza Strip due to begin in July. Anything beyond this is pie in the sky, which is why the White House is reluctant to send any high-profile representative to the meeting. At the same time, the EU and the invited Arab rulers from Qatar, Tunisia and Morocco, will politely decline their invitations if the event lacks the weight of the US secretary’s presence.

With five days to go, the summit which Mubarak is eager to host is very close to fading into insignificance on all these counts.


Will two women pull Middle East wires?


According to the original plan, DEBKA-Net-Weekly learns, a surprise visitor, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the external relations commissioner of the European Union, was due to represent Europe at the summit, the first time an EU functionary would have participated directly in a Middle East summit, not only with Washington’s consent but its blessing.

She is due to arrive in Israel on the same day as Rice, February 6.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources have learned the Bush administration applied quiet pressure in recent months to have the former EU external relations commissioner, Briton Chris Patten, widely regarded as anti-American, removed and replaced with someone the United States could work with.

This replacement turns out to be Ferrero-Waldner, Austrian foreign minister from 2000 to October 2004. Rice, who has dealt with the diplomat before, believes that together they can promote a cooperative US-European Middle East agenda that encompasses not only the Palestinian issue but also Iraq and Iran. This groundwork will be useful for the US secretary’s whirlwind introductory tour of European capitals, particularly if the two diplomats could promise that Israel’s goodwill gestures to Abu Mazen at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit presage bigger and more important concessions in the near future.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources, intrigued by Ferrero-Waldner’s meteoric rise on the US-EU league, note that the Austrian diplomat still has a close relationship with Boutros Boutros Ghali, the former UN secretary general whom she served as chief of protocol at UN headquarters in New York during his 1992-1997 stint. The United States effectively forced the Egyptian to forego a second term, citing strong suspicions that he conspired with the French to deal the United States stinging military defeats and political setbacks in Somalia in 1993 and in the civil war in Bosnia in the mid-1990s. American presidents, even glad-hander Bill Clinton, have avoided contacts with Boutros Ghali or those close to him. Ferrero-Waldner is the first member of Boutros Ghali’s inner circle to regain Washington’s confidence.


Iraqi feather in Washington‘s cap


The new secretary of state enjoys a good headwind for her first takeoff abroad from Iraq’s general election on January 30. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources and experts in the Middle East (See also “Initial Breakdown of Iraq’s First Exercise in Democracy” precis in HOT POINTS), the ballot was a qualified success. While not exactly an unadulterated display of democracy in action, the event provided the cornerstone for building a new government in Baghdad. More importantly, it ushers in a federal framework for the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish communities in the oil-rich country, creating a new political-national-religious map with key ramifications for its final borders.

The Palestinians went to the polls three weeks before the Iraqi people.

On the quiet, Egyptian president Mubarak and Israeli prime minister Sharon embarked on a secret dialogue to lay the groundwork for an Israel-Palestinian peace – much as Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin engaged in private dialogue in 1977 to prepare the way for Israel’s first peace accord with an Arab state.

The borders of Iraq, Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are all in a state of flux. If Rice can pin them down to the Middle East drawing board, she will have contributed to the biggest US diplomatic blitz in the region in decades, accomplished in her first weeks in office. This would beat any of her predecessors’ records.

But it now transpires that Washington is not the only world player on the Middle East, or even the Palestinian, stage.

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