Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s third visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories since taking office in late January — and second in a month — has diplomats and observers wondering whether her trips mean the return to the Middle East shuttle diplomacy of earlier administrations.
Not quite, State Department officials say.
The Bush administration still thinks Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, scheduled to begin in mid-August, “belongs to the parties,” as Miss Rice said in February during her first visit to the region, the officials said.
At the same time, one senior official said, “we are at a critical moment” and the “issue is too important” not to be involved at a very high level.
“I don’t know that I’d call it shuttle diplomacy. Both sides are making efforts, and we hope the secretary’s trip will advance the scope and depth of their cooperation,” the official said. “We want to see if we can help move the process along with her active engagement.”
U.S. officials also said Miss Rice decided to go to the region again late this week because of the recent violence, which has brought back images of dead and wounded from nearly five years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.
Even though Miss Rice’s frequent visits may not qualify as shuttle diplomacy yet, they defy the administration’s arms-length approach to the Middle East conflict during its first term.
“There is a very different set of circumstances on the ground,” the senior official said, referring to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s death and the election of Mahmoud Abbas as president of the Palestinian Authority.
Stephen Grand, director of the Middle East Strategy Group at the Aspen Institute, said leadership is “urgently required on all sides — Israeli, Palestinian and American — if we are to take full advantage of the historic opportunity presented by the Gaza disengagement.”
“Recent events have demonstrated the indispensability of U.S. engagement — as an honest broker, an agenda setter and a force for change,” he said.
Shuttle diplomacy often is associated with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s frequent trips to the Middle East in the 1970s, and most of his successors have taken up the practice.
Bush administration officials said Miss Rice is not likely to return to the region every few weeks — and stay there for days — as some of her predecessors have done.
“The level of American investment in the Gaza pullout is very high, and we are very satisfied by the U.S. role,” one Israeli official said, adding: “Still, there is a limit to what the Americans can do.”
The Israeli official said that, in addition to bringing more attention to the Gaza withdrawal, Miss Rice will try to “get the parties to finalize” some of the agreements they have been discussing in recent weeks and months.
They include the transfer of about 5,000 Palestinian security personnel from the West Bank to Gaza — which the official said Israel is “willing to facilitate” — the construction of a deep seaport and the possible reopening of the Gaza airport.
“We are trying to ensure Gaza’s openness to the world,” he said.
U.S. and Israeli officials also said Miss Rice will raise the topic of the recent violence in the region during her meetings and will urge Mr. Abbas to be tougher with militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
The officials praised Mr. Abbas’ reported decision to cut contact with Hamas after the most recent attack on Israel last week — he was said not to be taking phone calls from Hamas leaders — but said he has the capability to fight them if necessary.
“If he doesn’t, Israel will have to deal with that,” the Israeli official said.
“There is no question that disengagement will take place on time,” he said. “The real question is, ‘Will it be successful?’”