Few are more adept at the art of making forceful statements than US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. So, not too many were surprised at her saying that the time had come for the establishment of a Palestinian state after meeting Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas on her visit to the region. Her mission is to kickstart the peace process between the Palestinians and Israelis. It is clear, said the eloquent Ms Rice, that a two-State solution is essential for both sides and for American interests.
Ms Rice is only too aware that with 15 months to go, the Bush administration’s foreign policy forays have ranged from the disastrous to the ineffective. So, the issue of Palestine has assumed top priority. Unfortunately, despite the US’s exhortations, there are far too many slips between the cup and lip as of now. Her visit is to lay the groundwork for an upcoming peace summit to be held in the US, which she hopes will be substantive and advance the cause of Palestine. The Palestinians will not bite if there is no comprehensive text on which the summit can be based. They want a document which will set out the basis of solutions to the final status issues of Jerusalem, borders, settlements, refugees, security, water and bilateral relations. The Israelis want just a broad, general document and no timetable. This is the major hurdle that will have to be surmounted if there is to be any hope of progress for the peace process. The only silver lining in the cloud is that Israeli pm Ehud Olmert has hinted that he might be open to compromise on the most contentious issue: the status of Jerusalem. Mr Olmert can go thus far and no more because his government is hostage to right-wing coalition partners who would pull out if he makes too many concessions. No US government can push Israel too much as the latter is its key ally in a region where there is substantial anti-Americanism.
President Abbas, too, cannot be seen to compromise too much given that the extremist Hamas is a strong presence in the West Bank and Gaza and within his administration. The region’s Arab countries feel that the US, bogged down as it is in Iraq, is not in a position to push both sides towards a mutually acceptable agreement in the short time left for the Bush administration. This does not augur well for the peace process or the region.