Dressed up diplomacy
Rice's visit to the region was as predictable as its outcome, writes Doaa El-Bey
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice paid a two-day visit to the region in the hope of reviving the stalled momentum of the Annapolis meeting which had attempted to kick-start the peace process, improve humanitarian conditions for Palestinians on the ground and move towards implementing the international peace plan known as the roadmap. "My intention is to focus on those three pillars of Annapolis," she said before a joint press conference with her Egyptian counterpart Ahmed Abul-Gheit.
There was no sign any plans had emerged capable of promoting a sustained ceasefire though Abul-Gheit said at the press conference that they had at least agreed on the necessary steps: a halt to the firing of rockets from Gaza and an end to what he called Israel's "unequal use of force". What the region needs, said Abul-Gheit, is "a period of quiet to open the way for energetic pursuit of peace".
The two sides agreed on the urgent need to resume the peace process. But Cairo, said Abul-Gheit, stresses the importance of resuming negotiations in a suitable atmosphere. To that end, Egypt is holding separate talks with both the Palestinians and Israelis and Javier Solana, the chief EU negotiator, is expected to visit Cairo soon. That Israel launched two air raids against Gaza while Rice was in Egypt calling for a revival of the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks underlines the difficulties of reviving the peace process. In addition Israeli forces briefly entered Southern Gaza late Tuesday and killed a local Hamas member and a month-old baby.
In order for the peace process to restart a more effective US policy must be in place. According to Abdel-Raouf El-Reidi, a former ambassador to Washington, instead of condemning Hamas the US should pressure Israel to halt its settlement building on Palestinian territories and use diplomatic means to pursue a de facto agreement on a reciprocal commitment to ceasefire. "The current policy of putting pressure on Hamas and regarding it as a terrorist organisation is simplistic. We need creative diplomacy that could ease the tension in the region and create a proper atmosphere for peace," he said.
Rice called on Hamas to halt its rocket attacks on Israel and backed Israel's right to respond to the rocket fire. "The rocket attacks against innocent Israelis in their cities need to stop. This can't go on. No Israeli government can tolerate that," Rice said at the press conference.
She called on Israel to do more to prevent the loss of civilian lives. "I have told the Israelis that when they are engaged in defending themselves they need to be aware of the effects of those operations on innocent people... and what can happen the next day."
Since Israel launched its offensive against Gaza last week more than 120 Palestinians have been killed. The Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, as a result, ended political dialogue with Israel. Rice had hoped to talk Abbas out of that decision during her visit. Abbas has called for a truce between Israel and Hamas before the Middle East peace process can progress.
El-Reidi rules out any possibility Abbas will resume peace talks with Israel under current conditions. How can Abbas, who claims that Gaza is under his jurisdiction as the Palestinian president, resume talks with the government that attacks his people, he asks.
At the press conference Rice said she did not think enough progress had been made towards implementing the roadmap. She ruled out doing any "finger pointing" but mentioned she had a strong message for both the Palestinians and Israelis.
Following meetings with President Hosni Mubarak and Abul-Gheit, Rice left Egypt on Tuesday for the Palestinian territories where she met with Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and then went on to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. She held talks with other senior Israeli officials including Foreign Minster Tzipi Livni and Defence Minister Ehud Barak on Wednesday before heading to Brussels for NATO ministerial talks.
In a rally marking the withdrawal of Israeli forces from northern Gaza, Hamas leader Mahmoud Al-Zahar told the crowd, "the battle and confrontation will continue and expand even further." Hamas did, however, indicate a readiness to compromise if it managed to reach a ceasefire with Israel that included the release of Palestinian prisoners and the end of the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Israel withdrew its forces from Gaza on Monday but vowed air strikes would continue.
Abul-Gheit and Rice differed on how to integrate Hamas in negotiations. The former regards the organisation as an intrinsic part of the Palestinian equation that will have to be involved in future negotiations. "At a certain point in time... we will make progress... and when it comes to political negotiations it will be essential to convince Hamas to come on board," he said, linking that possibility to Hamas's readiness to renounce violence. Rice insisted that it was not a question of whether the US should approach Hamas or not, but one of what Hamas was willing to do. Hamas, she said, has to decide whether it is ready to give up violence and live side by side with Israel.
So is there any hope Rice's tour will succeed in its avowed aims? El-Reidi thinks not. "It is barely credible that the US is talking about a Palestinian state living peacefully side by side with Israel when the US destroyer USS Cole is currently in Lebanese waters and when Washington describes the criminal operation that Tel Aviv is conducting against Gaza as self-defence."