Conundrum Condi Needs Unravel

Condoleezza Rice was quick on the heels, literally walling through the embers of the latest Israeli-Palestinian flare-up, and achieving sort of a breakthrough for her country’s foreign policy by insisting that peace talks continue despite the dramatic rise in violence in the Gaza Strip. Undeterred by the Israeli onslaught (in reply to Hamas rockets) that has killed more than 120 people – at least 23 children among them- the US Secretary of State forced Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas back to the table after he demanded that a truce be put in place first.

That definitely is a departure from the tradition by which successive US administrations have allowed the beneficiaries of their largesse to walk away from diplomacy at precisely those moments when bloodshed and increased tensions have made engagement more necessary than ever. Now that Rice has seemingly reversed this approach, those who have used this “brake mechanism” so frequently in the past might desist if they conclude that it has been decoupled from the diplomatic machinery. Unfortunately, the matter is more complicated, principally because it will take a lot more than Rice imposing her will on the hapless Abbas to prove that she can and will do something similar when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decides to throw a tantrum.

More seemed in the offing with Cairo stepping up mediation efforts. Egyptian intelligence officials were yesterday trying to broker truce in talks with Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders after Rice met Egyptian leaders on Tuesday. During the visit, she announced she had waived the withholding of $100 million in US aid to Egypt called for last year by Congress – and some in Cairo saw the waiver as a gesture to win Egyptian help with Hamas. Rice would not say whether Washington supports the Egyptian talks with Hamas, but noted Cairo was a full participant in Mideast peace talks the US sponsored at Annapolis in the fall while Assistant Secretary of State David Welch yesterday discussed the mediation efforts with top officials in Cairo

And that gives hope. The Palestinians are truly desperate, both in Gaza, where Hamas remains firmly in control despite US-Israeli pressure, and in the Occupied West Bank. The Israelis are less hard-pressed, but according to polls most of them have come to realise the inevitability of negotiations with Hamas. Solid majorities on both sides want the peace process to work. Rice must prevail on Olmert to take it ahead.

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