US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice landed in the Middle East Sunday, Oct. 14 from a bruising encounter with Russian president Vladimir Putin, an experience which she shared with defense secretary Robert Gates.
She fared no better in her quest for a Middle East international peace conference geared to shaping the mold for a Palestinian state before the end of the year.
The bad news dogged her every step in the troubled region.
Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert told her nothing had been settled with Mahmoud Abbas and no joint document on core issues would be forthcoming in time for the Annapolis conference. Hence, no starting point for brass tacks final-status talks on the two-state solution of the Bush vision.
This evaluation was echoed by Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak and the Middle East Quartet’s special envoy Tony Blair.
Rice’s hopes of getting the peace process in full spate before the end of the Bush presidency had fallen flat. She was advised that the best thing Washington could to in these circumstances was to postpone the conference indefinitely.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s exclusive sources in the Middle East list the rebuffs which greeted Condoleezza Rice between Sunday and Wednesday, Oct.14-17.
Saudi Arabia begged off attendance at Annapolis through an intermediary. Mubarak was asked to forward the message.
Egypt. The Egyptian president Mubarak had this to say:
1. I don’t see any basis at all for a conference.
2. There is not the slightest chance of the Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and prime minister Olmert reaching any sort of accord. Therefore, the United States must save face and postpone.
Arabs cry off one by one
Jordan. In a brusque snub quite unlike him, King Abdullah was pointedly absent from Amman on the day of the US Secretary’s scheduled visit. The Jordanian king announced he was spending time at his private estate outside London and invited her to come over.
The Arab League Follow-up Committee. The Arab League secretary Amr Musa met the US Secretary during her stopover in Cairo Tuesday, Oct. 16, and informed her that he saw no chance of any of the twelve Arab governments on the committee, which monitors the Arab-Israeli peace process, participating in the Annapolis conference.
After the Saudis cried off, most of the Gulf emirates and Morocco decided to stay away.
Our sources add that Malaysia and Indonesia, which watched to see which way the Saudis jumped, are also considering turning down Washington’s invitation.
Israel. Olmert told Rice bluntly that the American drive for an international conference before the end of the year is unrealistic; time is too short for Israel and the Palestinians to agree on anything.
In any case, he warned the US Secretary, while in their seven tete-a-tetes Abbas seemed to have accepted the trade-off principle, he has since turned tough. Now he wants detailed accords on six core issues of the Israel-Palestinian conflict to be put on the table before the international conference.
Palestinians. After his second round of talks with Condoleezza Rice Wednesday, Oct. 17, Abu Mazen said that as matters stand now – he accused Israel of deliberate sabotage – he is not at all sure the Palestinians should attend the meeting. Ex-prime minister Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala), who leads the Palestinian negotiating team, went further and said the Palestinians should definitely not go to Annapolis because the accords and understandings reached (or not) in the Olmert-Abbas conversations are not binding.
Middle East Quartet Envoy Tony Blair reported to Rice that he had not seen the slightest inclination towards flexibility in the Palestinian officials he met. Even on matters unrelated to their dispute with Israel, such as forging ahead on development projects, Blair said Abu Mazen and prime minister Salam Fayyed were utterly inert.
The British ex-premier disclosed that he had tried putting before the pair working plans for a phased development process that would unfold in one Palestinian town after another. This would lead the West Bank into an unhurried process of economic growth. Blair’s ideas were greeted with indifference by both Palestinian leaders.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report that the British politician voiced extreme frustration with the task assigned him and proposed dropping it in favor of sharing the diplomatic functions. To this Rice has objected from the day he was appointed Special Middle East Envoy.
France warns Russians, Chinese will scuttle the meeting
France. Foreign minister Bernard Kouchner warned the US Secretary when they met in Europe before she flew to the Middle East that the United States was making a mistake by inviting the UN Security Council’s permanent members to Maryland.
The Russians and Chinese, he said, would pick any working papers to pieces and erase the US and West European input. At best, those papers would end up as unworkable compromise documents. Kouchner thought that without Russian and Chinese participation, the conference might have a chance of setting up a two-year negotiating track, as Bush and Rice had intended from the first.
(See article in the last DEBKA-Net-Weekly: Rice Promises Bush a Legacy that Outlives Iraq)
But the present format, said the French minister, is a recipe for diplomatic mishmash with bridging proposals from all sides tossed into the pot.
Britain. While she was talking to Israeli leaders in Jerusalem, Rice received a message from the British premier Gordon Brown soliciting the Bush administration to carefully reconsider the entire conference project, which he believed would cause more harm than good. Not content with this warning to Washington, Brown will circulate this message around Middle East capitals by means of a special emissary, his senior political adviser, Simon McDonald, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Israel.
US envoys on the spot were the most pessimistic of all. The diplomatic, military and intelligence officials posted in Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan, emphasized that Abu Mazen and Fayyad were dead in the water as far as regaining any measure of control of the West Bank was concerned. This view was backed up by assistant secretary of state David Welch, a recent visitor to the region.
They also drew Rice’s attention to the indirect contacts Abbas had secretly opened up with the rival Hamas, which expelled his Fatah and Palestinian Authority from the Gaza Strip in June.
There is considerable anxiety in Jerusalem lest the failure of Secretary Rice’s mission to get a Middle East peace conference up and running before the end of the year leads to a crisis of confidence between Washington and Jerusalem. This depends very much on where President Bush assigns the blame for the setback after listening to the Rice report. (More about this in HOT POINTS below)