- The Washington Times - Monday, February 7, 2005

If, as the adverting slogan goes, it takes a tough man to make a tender chicken, the lady has to be tougher than a dominicker rooster to make peace in the Middle East. So we trust Condi Rice.

The Israelis will nevertheless take Ronald Reagan’s advice. “Trust, but verify.” There’s something in the water at the State Department that always smells like sellout. Even Condi needs more than a week or so to clear the scum on stagnant water.

But this time there may be more to the “peace process” than merely the hoariest clich east of Suez. When Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas sit down this morning in Sharm el Sheik to talk about silencing the guns, the signs are hopeful in a way they have not been before.

Against the backdrop of hope in Iraq, the talks in Sharm el Sheik will cast fresh air and maybe even light into the abyss called the Middle East. Everyone is waiting to hear that the Palestinians will call off their campaign to kill Jews in return for more concessions from Israel.

The White House, though eager for something more than meaningless process, does not exactly expect lasting peace, and is keeping distance from the talks. This distance is more apparent than real. If the talks crash in more tedious recriminations, George W. and his new secretary of state can say the usual things about disappointment and regret and escape blame. For once, this is what both sides want, which is one of the signs that something’s in the wind, and it’s not the stench of a rotting corpse. Yasser Arafat is still dead and safely buried, for which we can all be grateful.

“Something strange is going on,” says Aluf Benn, an Israeli pundit, in Ha’aretz, the Israeli daily. “The government of Ariel Sharon prefers Egyptian involvement to American arbitration — that same administration the prime minister described as very friendly to Israel? Hosni Mubarak is applauded and the news that [Condoleezza] Rice is arriving is received with sour looks?”

The Israelis don’t like playing the pawns in a game of big-power politics as the secretary flexes feminine muscles as a demonstration that the Americans are back in Europe and ready to resume the responsibilities of leadership and to pick up the perks that are Big Daddy’s due.

Mahmoud Abbas, the new man in Palestine, looks better to the Americans than he probably is, but after Arafat a horned toad would turn heads at the White House. He’s saying most of the right things, and though talk is cheap there’s a certain happy anticipation much like the anticipation on the eve of one of Dr. Johnson’s second marriages — “a triumph of hope over experience.”

This happy anticipation might lead the White House to cut the Palestinians more slack than they deserve. This is the fear of many of Israel’s friends in the United States, both Jewish and evangelical Christian, who are otherwise among George W.’s warmest friends. They’re aware of the State Department’s traditional eagerness to excuse and embrace whatever endearing despots the Arabs throw up to torment Jews.

Many of these American friends lifted an eyebrow when Condi, playing the smiling but stern schoolmarm, told the Israelis they must make “hard choices” in the pursuit of process. (Peace comes later.) This smelled a lot like the familiar routine of demanding ever more concessions from Israel, necessary to keep the process moving since the Palestinians never, as a matter of principle, keep their word.

Maybe everything’s different this time, but Mr. Abbas is more beloved in Foggy Bottom than in the Palestinian precincts. Hamas, the collection of thugs and killers who have never renounced their ambition to throw the Jews into the sea, soundly trounced Mr. Abbas’ ruling Fatah movement in municipal elections only a fortnight ago. Fatah, confused and distracted much in the way of our own Democrats, now wants to postpone parliamentary elections scheduled for the summer. Hamas will no doubt try to exploit this confusion and distraction if the civilized Palestinians make any meaningful agreement with Israel.

It’s all very complicated. Welcome to the Middle East.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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