Rice's Next Challenge

Learning from Lebanon
December 26, 2007 |
Bush and Rice have talked about supporting a bilateral process between Israelis and Palestinians. They will have to do more than that.
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With the Annapolis conference and the Paris fund-raising effort to aid the Palestinians behind us, the Middle East peace process is now in need of constant vigilance. President George W. Bush will visit the region in January, but it is Condoleezza Rice who will be looked upon to provide a guiding hand.

The new peace effort is very much her baby. A look at the war in Lebanon last summer, and Rice's management of it, provides some clues to the challenges ahead.

In his recently released study of Secretary Rice, ''The Confidante: Condoleezza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy,'' Glenn Kessler, a Washington Post correspondent, recounts a memorable episode from that war. Two weeks into the fighting, with no end in sight, the world and the region were agitated and the Italians convened a high-level conference. Rice refused to endorse an immediate cease-fire, arguing instead for a more permanent change to the status quo in Lebanon.

Kessler describes a sweltering mid-summer Roman conference hall, the image of a ''bedraggled Rice . . . wiping beads of sweat from her forehead,'' is splashed across the world media.

According to Kessler, ''Rice did not look strong or in control; she looked in over her head.''

That image was banished at Annapolis. Rice looked the very embodiment of poise, stature and accomplishment.

To be effective in peace however, the secretary of state will need to learn three lessons from her handling of the Lebanon War: that fragile Arab polities are best stabilized by reconciliation, not confrontation, that American diplomatic leadership should be timely and persistent, not sluggish and sporadic, and that the special relationship between Jerusalem and Washington should be used to help Israel climb down from precarious ladders, not scramble further up them.

The war in Lebanon was supposed to be about handing Hezbollah a crushing defeat and reshaping that country's politics. Things didn't work out that way. Lebanon is deeply divided, and exacerbating that division was counterproductive. Political progress will necessitate difficult domestic compromises.

The reality for the Palestinians is somewhat similar. A sustainable Israeli-Palestinian peace cannot be constructed on the edifice of Palestinian division. Hamas should be offered incentives to join the process.

Hamas and the Gaza Strip it controls are important not only because they pose the threat of violence, but also because they are potentially capable of bestowing greater legitimacy on a fragile peace effort, making possible the implementation of any deal that is reached.

Rice must remember Lebanon, pursue a Gaza-Israel cease-fire, and encourage reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas -- something that can be done indirectly via third parties.

The most conspicuous aspect of American diplomacy in that summer of war was that it went AWOL for a critical month. Only on day 34 of the fighting did the United States facilitate UN passage of Security Council Resolution 1701, ending the war.

Rice's diplomacy (or lack thereof) prevented the push for an immediate cease-fire.

Post-Annapolis success requires something different -- early and frequent American intervention. Bush and Rice have talked about supporting a bilateral process between Israelis and Palestinians. They will have to do more than that. It is already evident that the United States needs to baby-sit the parties. This applies to commitments undertaken to improve daily life -- freezing settlements, improving security, and easing closures. Beyond that, the United States should be ready to submit bridging proposals to seal a detailed framework agreement on the core issues -- territory, Jerusalem, refugees and security.

U.S. diplomatic leadership does not mean American solo-ism; the United States should better integrate the Quartet and Arab states into the process, including Syria. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel recently told the Haaretz newspaper that if Israel did not achieve a two-state solution, it was ''finished.''

It is hard not to see this message as being addressed to both an Israeli and American audience. A translation for the nuance-challenged: Help me to do what I know to be necessary for Israel's survival. It is easier for an Israeli prime minister to say yes on a tough issue to an American president than to the Chairman of the PLO.

So, the third lesson is this -- the United States does neither itself, nor its friends in Jerusalem any favors when it out-koshers the Israelis. The special relationship is more constructively deployed when it helps Israel get beyond debilitating addictions to occupied territories and settlements, for instance.

By opposing an early diplomatic exit strategy to the Lebanon war, Rice displayed a simplistic reading of the special relationship and ultimately harmed both Israel's security and America's standing.

Senior Israeli ministers are on record testifying to an investigating committee that when they voted in the cabinet to authorize the initial military strike they did not consider this to be the start of a prolonged war. Their working assumption was that diplomatic pressure would end the military conflict after 48 to 96 hours.

That did not happen -- America prevented it, thereby making Israel a prisoner to accomplishing a mission that was never realistic. The delay in diplomacy did not change the substance of the deal eventually reached, it did, however, cause more death, destruction and loss of American prestige.

Rice knows both the parameters of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and that delay in reaching that deal has similar but far more devastating consequences. The challenge now is for her to learn the lessons of that sticky day in Rome.