Rice has left Jerusalem

It was Rice’s eighth visit to Jerusalem-Ramallah, and her third in six weeks, or her second in two weeks, depending on perspective. There are reports of still one more visit to come, by mid-November.

Kol Israel, citing Reuters, reports this morning that “A senior US official says the Annapolis peace summit is likely to take place in the last week of November. Reuters quotes the official as saying that participating countries will be represented [in Annapolis] at the ministerial level”.

Yesterday, in Ramallah, it was a small treat to watch Rice’s convoy pass. The first clue was the unusual deployment of olive-uniformed Palestinian security (the police wear blue). They refused to allow cars to park on the street in front of the Wataniya building, where the Palestinian Peace Coalition [the Palestinian team working on the Geneva Initiative] used to be housed, until their funding dried up. The building houses the Swiss, Japanese, and Irish consulates, and Royal Jordanian Airlines offices – clearly a dangerous lot. The security forces were quite suspicious, but not really nervous. At the last minute, it was possible to emerge into the sunlight just in time to see the action — like watching the Saint Patrick’s Day parade in NYC.

Rice, at about 11:30 am, was apparently coming from the office of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and going to the Muqata’a to see Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen).

Traffic was cut off a few minutes before the convoy approached. Then, a white pickup truck approached at high speed from the opposite direction, and made a U-turn, waiting in position to lead the convoy on. A smaller bright mid-blue vehicle (the color of some police cars was next, then, after a pause, a police motorcyclist with a rotating light on a pole perched at the back of his vehicle signalled the arrival of the convoy itself: Another blue police van. Closed vehicles loaded with Palestinian olive-uniformed security personnel. Then about 8 black vans, with tinted windows (closed). In the second row of seats, suited security personnel, one man fully facing each side of the street, anxious faces scanning the facades of the buildings on both sides. What would they do if they actually saw something dangerous — a rifle sticking out of an upper floor window, like at the Texas Book Repository? It might be too late by then … In the back of these black vans, at least two rows of seats, facing each other, forming a conversational grouping. Calm reigned.

The convoy moved at a clip, but didn’t break the sound barrier.

At the back, another group of six to eight white vehicles. These seemed to be more security, probably including Israeli security. These white vehicles, in fact, might be all Israeli, at least Israeli-provided. At the end, two white vehicles with a printed sign in the window: Press. The windows in these vans were clear, allowing a perfectly clear view of the well-dressed and clearly well-mannered travelling press corps, and perhaps other local journalists being assisted to attend the event. Sitting ducks.

At the end of their meeting, sometime around 1:30 or 2:00 pm, Rice and Abbas gave what was latter called an “upbeat” joint press conference at the Muqata’a, where local (Palestinian) journalists had been asked to be in place from 10:00 — for security reasons.

Abbas and Rice were pleased, apparently, from comments made at a gala meeting of the “prestigious” Saban Forum on Sunday evening by Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert — two of the most important of which were (1) “We will not bargain about the right of the Palestinian people to their own state”, and (2) “It should be remembered that the Roadmap sets out a series of steps for the State of Israel. These steps, like the obligations of the Palestinians, have yet to be implemented. We will not concede to the Palestinians on any of the obligations outlined in the Roadmap, and we will not avoid fulfilling our own obligations to the letter”.

For a fuller account of Olmert’s hailed remarks, see the post “The Day after Annapolis?“, on Palestine-Mandate.com, here.

For an informal poll of Palestinian man-on-the-street reactions to the present process, see the post on Palestine-Mandate.com, “There will be an Annapolis meeting, it seems“, here.

Rice did not visit the nearly-completed Yasser Arafat memorial, that is nearly completed, in lovely light-pink stone, around his gravesite in a corner of the Muqata’a — the building where his health declined after two years of being quite literally under seige, facing regular public Israeli threats to finish him off. Arafat was evacuated by helicopter and taken via Jordan to a hospital in France, where he soon died. Arafat’s body was returned from France via Egypt, and then helicopter to the Muqata’a, where it was unable to land for a very long time due to the press of mourners on the ground.

Historical footnote: at least three Western journalists, all women, were recalled by their news organizations as a result of Israeli protests at their emotional [i.e. “unobjective”] reporting of Arafat’s final days, including his helicopter evacuation — a much weakened-man in an overcoat and woolen cap, over his pyjamas — from the Muqata’a.

Rice has arrived back in Jerusalem

Condoleeza Rice has arrived back in Jerusalem on Sunday and will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Quartet Special Envoy Tony Blair, according to Kol Israel Radio.

Rice, Olmert, and Blair are due to address the Saban Forum (a production of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, financed by Los Angeles-based philanthropist Haim Saban; the Saban Forum meets annually to strengthen U.S-Israeli relations) in Jerusalem on Monday evening, after which there will be a gala dinner.

Rice aides Stephen Hadley and David Welch have been conducting meetings with Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams in the days since Rice’s last visit here.

Speaking with journalists on board her plane travelling from Turkey to Israel yesterday, Rice said, according to a U.S. State Department transcript of her remarks, that “They’re still working. And like with anything of this kind, you know, they’re going through some knotty discussions. And I think those knotty discussions are going to continue for a while, but I will go out and see if there is anything that I can do to help move this along”.

Rice met Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in Jerusalem on Sunday morning, Haaretz reports. Rice’s team, if not Rice herself, are due to travel to Amman during the day on Sunday to brief or to consult with King Abdallah II on the Arab peace intitiative (according to the Saban Center’s press release). The Jerusalem Post says that Rice will join Olmert for a working lunch on Sunday, and will see Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak during the day.

Rice is due to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on Monday,

Rice – does she know what she's doing?

Here below is the U.S. State Department transcript of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s remarks to journalists travelling with her from Israel to London, where she was due to meet Jordan’s King Abdallah II.

Major questions that come immediately to mind:

(1) Since when is this the beginning of the process?

(2) What exactly does she mean when she says that phase one roadmap obligations must be carried out now, IN ADVANCE of any meeting?

(3) Does she really believe the explanation given to her by Israeli officials about the land from four Palestinian villages that is being confiscated between East Jerusalem and the huge Maale Adumim settlement in the West Bank to build a bypass road for Palestinian use — that this is being done from a good motive, that is, to help increase Palestinian mobility?

(4) Why has she so completely swallowed the Israeli position that the document the Israeli and Palestinians are supposed to be negotiating will only be a statement of intent — and will not be specific on the issues?

(5) Why has she backed off from her firmness about it now being the time to move toward a Palestinian state? And why is she saying so many “ifs” – as in, “If Israel is going to be asked to withdraw from the West Bank at some point in time” … “If a Palestinian state is ever going to come into being”?
Continue reading Rice – does she know what she's doing?

Rice visits Jesus' birthplace – Bethlehem

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem this morning — reputed to be the birthplace of Jesus.

The visit was described as “a break from peacemaking” — but she must have whispered a prayer or two, to help her efforts to bring Israeli and Palestinian negotiators closer to agreement.

It was later reported that Rice lit a candle in the Church of the Nativity.

Reuters added, “The smell of incense wafted through the air of the hushed church as Rice visited the grotto revered as the birthplace of Jesus”.

Rice told journalists, according to a State Department transcript, that “being here at the birthplace of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has been a very special and moving experience. I was saying earlier that I think I could spell Bethlehem before I could spell my name because it was so often in the stories that children follow to learn about the life of Jesus Christ, and it all started here in Bethlehem. It is also, I think, personally for me a reminder that the Prince of Peace is still with us and still with me and with all of us, but that also these great monotheistic religions that have inhabited this land together have an opportunity to overcome differences, to put aside grievances, to make the power of religion a power of healing and a power of reconciliation rather than a power of division. And that is what these great holy sites remind us of is that the three great religions indeed share a common vision of peace and a common vision of our humanity. And that is what I ultimately take away from this trip“.

It was reported that Rice also exchanged words with Palestinian residents of Bethlehem, but details on that are still coming in.

Reuters observed that the route was apparently not lined with cheering spectators: “Residents of Bethlehem, in the West Bank just outside Jerusalem, looked on with seeming indifference as Rice’s motorcade swept into the city with sirens blaring … Unemployment in the town is estimated at about 65 percent. More than 3,000 Christians, about 10 percent of the community in Bethlehem, have left the city since 2000, according to United Nations statistics”.

Rice also had to pass, again, through The Wall. Reuters drily recorded that: ” ‘Peace Be With You’, read an Israeli Tourism Ministry sign on a high concrete wall section of the West Bank fence Israel has constructed near the entrance to the city of Jesus’s birth”. The Reuters report on Rice’s visit to Bethlehem is published in Haaretz here.

That enormous and grotesque sign is nearly the full height of The Wall, at least 25 feet high, at that place, and is painted in bright colors in three languages – Arabic, Hebrew, and English.

entrance to Bethlehem  - photo by Rev. Julie Roweh

(Photo by Rev. Julie Rowe, a Lutheran Minister who lives and works in Jerusalem)

Continue reading Rice visits Jesus' birthplace – Bethlehem

Rice is up against The Wall – it's crunch time in Palestine

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice was still looking polished, well-groomed, nice and disciplined yesterday and today in Jerusalem — but it’s now crunch time in Palestine.

A story by the Associated Press says that after Rice’s meeting with Israeli officials on Sunday — over two hours with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, then another meeting with Defense Minister (and former Prime Minister, as well as one of the richest men in Israel) Ehud Barak, who was leaving for his own trip to Washington immediately afterwards — a “U.S. State Department official” indicated to journalists that the American-proposed Middle East Peace Conference (or, now downplayed, “meeting”), that was supposed to take place in November, might be postponed “because of gaps between the sides”.

The AP is reporting that: ” ‘This is going to take some time’, the official told reporters on condition of anonymity to describe the private conversations. ‘This is going to require a lot of hands-on American diplomacy. These are really tough issues’.”

The issues are tough, but not as tough as the Israelis.

The AP says that Barak, after meeting Rice, “later issued a statement saying the [Israeli] military’s freedom of movement in the West Bank was a ‘fundamental principle that must be demanded in the future as well’.” The AP noted drily that these comments “came despite long-standing Palestinian demands for a reduced Israeli presence in the West Bank”.

On Monday, Rice went to Ramallah to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. AP reports that there was a “security scare”: “Her trip was briefly delayed by what turned out to be a false security alert. Her convoy stopped at an Israeli fire station after Israeli police said they spotted a suspicious vehicle near a crossing point into the West Bank. The convoy moved on after 15 minutes”. The AP report on Rice’s last two days in the Mideast is here.

This “false security alert” could have been just a good bit of theatre — setting the scene, and atmospherics.

I wonder if Dr. Rice has ever seen The Wall — up close and personal? It would be nice if she decided to take a little tour while here … Seeing it in person is like getting hit, hard, in the solar plexus. It generally has a quite transformational impact.
Continue reading Rice is up against The Wall – it's crunch time in Palestine

Rice is in Jerusalem to check on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice arrived in Jerusalem Sunday after being profoundly shocked in Moscow by Russian President Putin’s anger. Will she be profoundly shocked here?

En route to Moscow three days ago, Rice was asked by journalists about her reaction to the revelation that the Israeli military had confiscated land from four Palestinian villages in order to construct a Palestinian bypass road around the enormous Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, located in the West Bank, west of Jerusalem:

“QUESTION: Israel announced this week the confiscation of Palestinian land between Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim in West Bank, which appears to be a fait accompli before your arrival. What are you going to do about that?

“SECRETARY RICE: Well, I called the Ambassador to — their Ambassador to the United States yesterday and asked for a clarification. I’m awaiting one …”

UPDATE: Rice told journalists en route to Tel Aviv this morning that she did get some official Israeli clarification. Here is her exchange with journalists on the topic, according to a transcript later released by the U.S. State Department:

“QUESTION: Madame Secretary, did you get an answer from the Israelis about this confiscation of Palestinian land?

SECRETARY RICE: I did. What I’ll do is I’d prefer to have the Israelis say precisely what they — their clarification. But let me put it this way: it was a clarification concerning the timing of such a — the actual timing that anything would happen, saying that it was not imminent and also that it was to improve Palestinian mobility. We’ll continue to have discussions about this. But the point that I’ll be making is we have to be very careful as we’re trying to move toward the establishment of a Palestinian state by actions and statement that erode confidence in the parties’ commitment to a two-state solution”.

In her meeting with journalists on board her plane, Rice also said: “I think the goal now is to paint as concrete a picture as possible of the — of a Palestinian state, to demonstrate that the international community, the region and most importantly the parties themselves believe that one can indeed be established, and then to invite all who have any — who have the interests of the Palestinian people at heart to join that consensus“.
Continue reading Rice is in Jerusalem to check on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations

Rice to return to Jerusalem and Ramallah next week

After yesterday’s meeting in Jerusalem between Israeli Prime Minister Olmert and Palestinian President Abbas, Israel’s Kol Israel Radio is reporting that the session had just been a “starting point”.

Kol Israel also said that the expected Middle East Peace Conference will probably only bring the two sides back to where they were before the outbreak of the Second Intifada at the end of September 2000 — what does that mean? Does that mean that the proposals that Israel’s then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak (now Defense Minister and Labor Party leader) put on the table in the failed Camp David peace talks in late July 2000? Does that mean that the IDF will have to withdraw from cities in the West Bank, and pull back to its prior positions?

Now, media reports say, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is expected to return to the region to prepare for her Middle East Peace Conference that may be held by Thanksgiving or by Christmas in Annapolis. Policy pundits have been urging her greater involvement prior to that meeting, though she has been clear that she will not get involved in negotiating.

And, Haaretz is reporting today that “Five former U.S. State Department and Pentagon officials are proposing Israeli and Palestinian capitals in Jerusalem and preventing Palestinian refugees from returning to Israel as part of a Middle East accord. In a six-page policy statement submitted to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, they also suggested a series of peace conferences following the one she hopes to convene next month, probably in Annapolis, Maryland, near Washington”.

According to the Haaretz story, these former officials are Robert Pelletreau, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and ex-assistant secretary of state for the region; Edward S. Walker, a former ambassador to Israel and Egypt; Thomas Pickering, an ex-undersecretary of state and ambassador to Israel and Jordan; Samuel Lewis, former ambassador to Israel; and Frederic C. Hof, Mideast official in the Pentagon.

Haaretz says that the report was written and coordinated primarily by Steven L. Spiegel, political science professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Diplomacy sometimes is all about splitting hairs. But diplomats very often have no profound understanding of whose toes they are stepping on in this process — and what happens afterwards is not so predictable.

In any case, these guys apparently think they have come up with a winning formula by proposing something Israel will like (ruling out any Palestinian refugee return to Israel proper), alongside something the Palestinians might like (dividing Jerusalem — but the Palestinians want the entire Old City, except maybe the Jewish Quarter, according to the Green Line that existed between Israeli forces and Jordanian forces prior to the June 1967 War).
Continue reading Rice to return to Jerusalem and Ramallah next week

Middle East Peace Conference by Thanksgiving? Christmas?

The Israeli press is reporting that today’s meeting in Jerusalem between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas marked the beginning of the negotiating process, because — after yet another closed-door one-on-one session — the two brought in their respective negotiations teams. The negotiating teams are due to start meeting next week.

However, the Israeli press also states, the negotiations won’t really start until after the Middle East Peace Conference that the U.S. wants to host in Annapolis, Maryland, in November. (It was originally suggested that the Peace Conference would be in September, perhaps around the time of the UN General Assembly’s annual high-level general debate).

On top of that, the Middle East Peace Conference might now be postponed a couple of weeks more, to allow more time for the Israelis and the rather un-technical Palestinian negotiators to spend together. The Jerusalem Post, for example, reported Wednesday evening that: “Sources in Washington said Wednesday that the international peace parley, scheduled for mid-November, might be postponed by two weeks or a whole month, to allow the sides to reach agreement, Army Radio reported.”
The JPost report that Washington is willing to postpone, again, the MidEast peace conference.

In another report, the Jerusalem Post’s Khaled Abu Toameh wrote that Abbas told reporters yesterday iafter meeting Jordan’s King Abdullah II in Amman that: “We’re negotiating with Israel, and after that there will be an agreement, which we will carry to the international conference to be blessed, adopted and endorsed, and then detailed negotiations shall begin…He said at least 12 Arab countries had agreed to send representatives to the conference. ‘There will be a very strong Arab presence at the conference’, Abbas said after holding talks with Jordan’s King Abdullah. ‘In addition, there will be some Islamic countries like Malaysia, Turkey and Indonesia’.”
The JPost report of Abbas’ remarks on the Middle East Peace Conference in Amman yesterday are here.

Continue reading Middle East Peace Conference by Thanksgiving? Christmas?

What will be the most difficult issue to overcome between Israelis and Palestinians?

The Haaretz newpaper is asking its readers to vote today on what issue they think will be the most difficult to overcome before the Middle East Peace Conference now scheduled for Annapolis in November.

The votes are still coming in, but the main problem seems, by a big margin, to be the “Right of Return” of Palestinian refugees.

We agree.

Here’s the result of the on-line voting as of this morning:

“What will be the most difficult Israeli/Palestinian issue to overcome before the November peace meeting?
Borders – 12%
Right of return – 39%
Jerusalem – 24%
Security – 25%

Votes: 246”

You can find the results of the Haaretz poll about what will be the most difficult sticking point in Middle East peace talks — and vote yourself — here.