RAMALLAH, West Bank — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traveled a woefully familiar path Thursday as her motorcade wended its way from downtown Jerusalem to the Palestinian stronghold of Ramallah, past checkpoints, armed men and an Israeli security wall that mark the geography of the Middle East conflict.
She met Palestinian officials, signed a document, had lunch and left. She said that she'd be back soon to work with Israelis and West Bank officials on talks to create a Palestinian state. But it's not clear what — if anything — she can accomplish.
Having largely ignored the Israeli-Palestinian conflict until now, backed Israel's failed war against Islamic militants in Lebanon, shunned the Islamic winners of Palestinian elections, refused to engage with Syria and launched a disastrous preemptive war against Iraq, the Bush administration has little credibility in the Arab world.
Over the past three days, Rice had to fend off questions from Arab leaders on whether the Middle East meeting that President Bush announced for this autumn will be just a "photo op." She made it clear that there's still no place in U.S. diplomacy for the Islamist Hamas party, which now controls Gaza, or for Syria, an important regional player. That could open the way to either — or both — being spoilers.
Some officials from Arab countries, who privately have raged at Bush's policies and even questioned his trustworthiness, seemed to be counting the months until a successor takes office.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said he listened to Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates explain U.S. plans for Iraq "regarding the upcoming period, which is the next 17 months, the life of the administration."
But without dramatic moves soon, and with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas both politically weak, it's hard to see how Rice can succeed where so many of her U.S. predecessors have failed.
Rice appears ready to try, although she acknowledged the American political calendar.
"Yes, you're right. We can only work at it for 17 months," she told reporters aboard her flight home to Washington on Thursday.
Noting that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is decades old, Rice said: "We're going to try. All that you can do is take advantage of openings."
Rice's efforts center in part on a proposed international Middle East conference scheduled to take place this fall. It's supposed to boost direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
If Rice can get major Arab countries — particularly those that don't formally recognize Israel — to attend, that would be a big advance.
She made only modest progress. Saudi Arabia, a regional leader, said it would consider attending, but only if it's agreed in advance that the conference will tackle four thorny issues, including the status of Jerusalem and the status of Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories, that have frustrated every previous attempt at peacemaking.
Arab leaders said they might attend a serious peace parley, but not a photo opportunity, Rice said.
"The president of the United States has no desire to call people together for a photo op," Rice said at a joint press conference with Abbas.
Rice said Olmert told her he's ready "to discuss the fundamental issues that will lead to negotiations soon for a Palestinian state."
But Olmert appears to want some sort of broad framework with the Palestinians that will give Israel reassurances about what it would have to give up in a peace deal before negotiations begin.
The Palestinians want to move straight to the core issues of the borders of their would-be nation; the status of Jerusalem; the fate of Palestinian refugees; and the future of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Turning Olmert's and Abbas' willingness to deal with each other into real progress is "not going to be a quick one," said a senior Rice aide, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity because he wasn't allowed to speak on the record. "It's going to take time."
On Iraq, the Saudis agreed to consider opening an embassy in Baghdad, whose U.S.-backed government they view with open contempt because, in the view of Saudi Arabia's Sunni Muslim leaders, it has discriminated against Iraqi Sunnis.
But the very same day, a major political bloc of Iraqi Sunnis announced that it would boycott the Iraqi parliament, another setback for political reconciliation.
The only thing the United States, the Arabs and Israel appeared to agree on without condition is that Iran's ambitions are a growing concern in the region and should be contained.