White House

Bush Middle East efforts end with little progress

JERUSALEM — Outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is wrapping up the Bush administration's yearlong attempt to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace with little to show for her investment.

When she hands off the diplomatic baton to President-elect Barack Obama's administration in January, Rice will pass along a diplomatic initiative that has helped to dispel the mutual distrust that chilled peace talks for seven years.

Beyond that, there have been few tangible successes since Bush launched his late-term diplomatic push last November in Annapolis, Md.

Since Annapolis, Israel has defied U.S. pressure by building hundreds of new homes in disputed West Bank settlements and expanded its network of security roadblocks that impede Palestinian economic development.

The Palestinians remain divided, with hard-line Hamas leaders who refuse to recognize Israel holding firm control of the Gaza Strip. That reality has always made striking a peace deal with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas problematic at best.

"The Annapolis process was dead on arrival, and anyone who thought otherwise was deceiving themselves," said Yossi Alpher, a former Israeli Mossad official who serves as co-director of www.bitterlemons.org, a Web site that focuses on Middle East politics.

The major players in the talks met Sunday on the Red Sea coast in Egypt in a bid to keep the process from being sidetracked when Bush steps aside for Obama.

The Middle East Quartet ended the meeting in Sharm el-Sheik by endorsing the Israeli-Palestinian talks as "substantial and promising."

"They have succeeded in putting in place a solid negotiating structure for continued progress in the future," the quartet, made up of the United States, the United Nations, Russia and the European Union, said after the meeting.

The Bush administration's most tangible success this year has come in rebuilding the Palestinian police force.

After watching the Palestinian Authority security forces swiftly routed from the Gaza Strip last year in a humiliating showdown with Hamas militants, the United States revved up efforts to build a reliable Palestinian security service in the West Bank.

The Palestinian Authority soldiers received U.S.-backed training, European Union support and Israeli-approved weapons before being dispatched to the bellwether West Bank cities of Nablus, Hebron and Jenin.

So far, the small-but-expanding forces have drawn cautious public praise.

This past weekend, Rice became the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Jenin, one of the biggest Israeli-Palestinian flashpoints that the Bush administration sought to showcase as a security success.

Beyond the police program, though, there have been few concrete steps to help create a better climate for peace talks.

Despite repeated vows to contain Israeli settlement building in the West Bank, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has pressed ahead with extensive new construction. West Bank development plans under Olmert are up more than 1,600 percent from last year.

Since Annapolis, the number of Jewish settlers living in the West Bank has grown by 3 percent.

And Israel has set up dozens more roadblocks around the West Bank that the World Bank warned last month were stifling economic development that is essential for building a stable Palestinian state.

The World Bank report noted that 38 percent of the West Bank is reserved for the 461,000 Jewish settlers who represent about 25 percent of the population.

Beyond the West Bank, Israel's biggest post-Annapolis security breakthrough came by cutting a ceasefire deal not with Abbas, but with Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip.

Israel agreed to a six-month ceasefire that is set to expire next month.

That agreement has largely held. But the relative quiet suffered its biggest test this past weekend when Israeli troops entered Gaza to destroy a tunnel the military said was to be used to launch a kidnapping operation in Israel.

The clashes are a reminder that Hamas has the ability to scuttle any peace deal Abbas strikes with Israel.

Negotiations are likely to change in the coming year because of changes in political leadership.

Bush is giving way to Obama, who says he won't let inertia overwhelm peace talks.

But it's unclear who Obama will deal with, since Israel holds new elections three weeks after he takes office in January.

Israelis could elect the less conciliatory Benjamin Netanyahu as their next prime minister. Netanyahu would be less likely to offer the Palestinians the same kinds of concessions Olmert was prepared to make — such as giving parts of Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority.

And the Palestinians remain divided between Hamas and Abbas, with no immediate hope of reconciliation: This past weekend, Egypt postponed talks designed to re-establish a Palestinian unity government between the two rivals.

(Special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this report from Jerusalem.)

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