Council on Foreign Relations

Secretary Rice Can Put Israeli-Palestinian 'Peace Train' Back on Tracks

BERNARD GWERTZMAN: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had a round of talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas [Abu Mazen] and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel, separately and then together, and today she's been in Jordan meeting with King Abdullah II, plus a number of security advisers from Arab states, to assess the possibilities of any movement on the Israeli-Palestinian front. What strikes you particularly from these talks?

MARTIN INDYK: These talks are qualitatively different from anything that she or the Bush administration has done before. And that's for two reasons. One is that she has committed herself to a discussion between Abu Mazen and Olmert about the framework for a final status agreement, or what she calls a "political horizon." And what Rice is doing is discussing—not negotiating—what a future Palestinian state would look like. Now, that is different from anything the Bush administration has done in its previous six years in office because they absolutely refused to have any "political horizon" in any of the things that they've produced. So, for instance, the "Road Map" talks about a two-state solution as a final objective but gives no details about what that final agreement would look like. This is an attempt by her to give greater granularity to the president's vision of an independent, democratic Palestinian state living alongside Israel.

The second thing is that she has committed to a sustained engagement. One of the things she said at the end of her remarks on Sunday was that "I will be back shortly." And she has said elsewhere that she's going to be coming back once a month. That's qualitatively different because the Bush administration has never had a sustained engagement in peacemaking on the Israeli-Palestinian front. They talked a good game but always walked away from any kind of sustained engagement.

GWERTZMAN: Now, what do you think has brought about this change? There's only two years left in the administration, and even though that doesn't leave much time, President Clinton negotiated up until his last days in office, so it's possible to keep going I know. What's brought about this change?

INDYK: Well, there's a new opportunity here. And the opportunity does not come from the election of the Hamas government or the Mecca agreement to form a national unity government of Palestinians. It comes from the sense that the Sunni Arabs—that's Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Sunni Arab leaders like Abu Mazen and Fouad Siniora in Lebanon—face a common threat from Iran and its allies, Syria, Hezbollah, and until the Mecca agreement, Hamas as well. And that they have a common interest with Israel in finding a way to counter the challenge from Iran. One important way of doing that is to make progress on the Palestinian issue because that enables the Sunni Arab leaders to say "our way works better than the way of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Hezbollah leader [Hassan] Nasrallah." They can say the other side's way is one of perpetual conflict, violence, and terrorism. They can say "our way is the way of peace, and our way can meet the needs of the Arab people better than their way." Movement on the Palestinian front can also justify greater engagement with Israel in this virtual alliance against the Iranians.

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Mr. Bernard Gwertzman is the Consulting Editor for cfr.org