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U.S. faces tough road on Middle East peace

WASHINGTON—It's a cruel irony, but one all too familiar to those who have followed the tortuous history of Middle East peacemaking.

After six years of rejecting the conventional wisdom that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was at the core of the Middle East's turmoil, the Bush administration is devoting itself to the cause of Middle East peace in its remaining 22 months.

And its timing could hardly be worse.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice leaves Friday on a four-day trip to the region that U.S. officials and foreign diplomats think will achieve little in the near term.

Almost nothing seems to be working in her favor. The latest political development was the formation of a Palestinian unity government whose platform echoes that of dominant faction Hamas, which Washington considers a terrorist group. It makes no mention of recognizing Israel or renouncing violence, positions on which Washington and the international community insist.

Meanwhile, two weak politicians are leading Israel and the Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government has lost almost all public support since last summer's war in Lebanon, and the report next month from a government-appointed commission on his performance during the crisis may cripple him altogether.

The clout of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas also has waned since Hamas defeated his moderate Fatah faction in January 2006 legislative elections, built up its military wing and engaged in weeks-long street battles with Abbas' forces.

Army Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, in charge of security coordination with the Palestinians, reportedly told a House of Representatives panel in closed session last week that Abbas' power was eroding dangerously.

Hamas, which took power in elections that Rice encouraged, is now an "organic" part of the Palestinian political system, said former State Department official Aaron David Miller, who advised six secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations.

"She runs head-on into the Hamas problem, which is going to make her task galactically harder," said Miller, author of a forthcoming history of U.S. mediation in the conflict.

Rice seems determined to press forward, nonetheless.

Appearing before a House appropriations subcommittee Wednesday, she acknowledged that the new Palestinian government posed "something of a challenge."

But she said she's returning to the Middle East because "it is extremely important to continue to show American commitment to the development of a political horizon so that the Palestinian people can see that their future rests with moderate forces like (Abbas), not with those forces that are extreme."

"Political horizon" is diplomatic code for spelling out the contours of a future Palestinian state, in the hope that it will build public support for eventual compromise with Israel.

While Israel has declared it will boycott the new government—aside from strictly limited contacts with Abbas—Rice has instructed U.S. diplomats to deal with its non-Hamas members. Such a gap in the U.S. and Israeli positions is rare in the Bush administration.

Rice's trip to Egypt, Israel, the West Bank and Jordan will be her fifth to the Middle East in six months, part of a renewed emphasis on diplomacy that emerged as the Iraq war soured. After ignoring the work of past administrations, Rice now is reportedly studying the history of President Bill Clinton's attempted peacemaking in his final months in office.

She's given new prominence to Jonathan B. Schwartz, a member of past U.S. peace negotiating teams. Schwartz, who's now the State Department's deputy legal adviser, and Assistant Secretary of State David Welch were to arrive in Israel on Thursday to help prepare Rice's visit.

The view from the State Department's upper floors is that "we're going to make peace—no matter what," said one official, who requested anonymity to speak more frankly.

Rice's calculation, he said, is that using a five-year-old Saudi peace initiative that Olmert has praised can ease the diplomatic bind that Washington finds itself in over Iraq and build support for a unified stance against an expansionist Iran.

That turns on its head the earlier White House view that overthrowing Iraq's Saddam Hussein would embolden Arab moderates and help cement Arab-Israeli peace.

David Makovsky, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the idea of boosting Mideast moderates by sketching a final peace deal was always problematic because of the weakness of Olmert and Abbas. "The prospects were slim then. They're virtually nonexistent now," he said.

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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