Rice's skills as Mideast mediator face a serious test

Condoleezza Rice taught crisis management at Stanford University but experts say the top United States diplomat will need more than academic prowess to mediate an end to six decades of Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“The question is, will she have that diplomatic skill to pull it off?” asked Daniel Levy, a former Israeli mediator now with the New America Foundation.

Secretary of State Rice is hosting a Middle East peace conference in Annapolis on November 27 aimed at launching formal Palestinian statehood negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

With an academic background in Soviet affairs, she has conceded the task ahead is daunting.

“If this had been an easy conflict to resolve and to end, it would have been done years ago,” Rice said on a visit to the West Bank this month, her eighth trip to the region this year.

Some experts point to her lack of experience in Middle East affairs but commend her efforts anyway to try and get a deal that has eluded all of her predecessors.

“She doesn’t have a significant background in the Middle East so, if I were to look at somebody’s CV or professional background in this particular area, you’d have to be skeptical,” said one Arab diplomat, who asked not to be named.

“On the other hand, if this Annapolis conference works ... it will be to a great extent because of the way she’s handled it,” he added.

In her tenure, Rice has left most negotiations to senior staff—whether on North Korea’s nuclear programme or an Indian civil nuclear deal, both of which are not yet complete.

Rice has plunged into direct negotiations only once, in November 2005 when she helped broker an access deal to Gaza. It was never fully implemented.

“She does not have a strong track record of being a negotiator,” said former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel, now at the Saban Centre at the Brookings Institution.

But Rice has made clear she’s ready to roll up her sleeves and work hard to get a deal until President George Bush’s last day in office in January 2009.

She told reporters last month she would persist “until I’ve given my last ounce of energy and my last moment in office”.

Asked if she were ready to get her hands dirty, she laughed and said: “I don’t know how much dirtier I can get my hands.”

Rice considers herself a natural debater and likes the intellectual “give and take” of negotiations.
Her staff say she never loses sight of the overall strategic picture of an issue no matter how many crises come her way.

Advice

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright advised Rice to boost her negotiating team and appoint a special Middle East envoy to tackle day-to-day Arab-Israeli peacemaking.

“This should be seen as the beginning of a process in which she is going to have to be intimately involved and I would also advise her to get the president of the United States up to date on what is happening and ... and have some kind of a robust peace team,” said Albright.

Rice has often said she can “walk and chew gum” at the same time, but Albright pointed to the difficulties of juggling major issues like Iran and Iraq while the Middle East consumes her energy.

“[For] the secretary of state and others—having been there and done that—it is very hard for a year to keep attention on one thing,” said Albright.

Aaron David Miller, a US mediator in Arab-Israeli negotiations who has a new book coming out next year, said his advice to Rice was simple: “Above all, do no harm. Don’t over reach, think things out carefully, don’t commit yourself to things you can’t deliver and be very patient.”

“Do not succumb to the temptation and power of the ticking clock,” he added. “Don’t go too fast. We don’t need another failure. I helped participate in too many.”

Former envoy for the Clinton administration, Dennis Ross, said a fatal flaw would be Rice wanting peace more than the warring factions.

“If it is more important to her then they will all simply sit back and wait for her to deliver concessions to everyone else and they won’t do anything on their own,” he said. - Reuters

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