- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 26, 2006

It was probably Condoleezza Rice’s unhappiest week as secretary of state, one in which the Bush administration’s ability to shape Middle East events in the near-term was tested as seldom before.

During her three days in the region, Egyptian and Saudi Arabian leaders — with Miss Rice standing at their side before the press — refused to support the U.S. financial boycott of the militant group Hamas as it takes control of the Palestinian parliament.

In Iraq, sectarian violence threatened to escalate into a civil war, setting back efforts by President Bush and Miss Rice to construct a democratic government that would shine as an example for the entire region.

And a deal with the United Arab Emirates, one of the United States’ few close Arab friends, to operate terminals at six major U.S. ports unexpectedly ignited bipartisan anger in Congress and forced at least a delay of the transaction.

Each instance not only illustrated the chasm between the United States and the Arab world, but seemed to widen it.

Miss Rice went to the Middle East hoping to build an Arab consensus for pressuring Hamas to either abandon terror attacks on Israel and accept its legitimacy, or risk losing so much foreign aid that it could be unable to govern effectively.

But the Saudis and Egyptians both rejected the U.S. strategy of financially isolating Hamas if the militant group does not moderate its policies.

“They are weak, illegitimate governments, and they will never do anything that will offend their domestic constituencies,” said Michael Mandelbaum of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Edward S. Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel, said Miss Rice’s chances of persuading the Saudis were hurt by published reports that the administration was working with Israel to bring down a Hamas-led Palestinian government.

“She is in a difficult situation,” Mr. Walker said. “The president has put himself in a corner. We can’t seem to be supporting terrorism” by financing a government whose parliament is dominated by Hamas.

The Palestinians want peace with Israel, and Hamas cannot deliver, Mr. Walker said. As a result, he predicted, Hamas will fall on its own.

Miss Rice and other administration policy-makers give no indication that they are prepared to simply wait out the radical group. Instead, their drive for an anti-Hamas consensus is likely to go on.

“If they want the help of America and the international community to build a prosperous, independent Palestinian state, they must recognize Israel, disarm, reject terrorism and work for lasting peace,” Mr. Bush said in a speech Friday.

“The international community must continue to make clear to Hamas that democratically elected leaders cannot have one foot in the camp of democracy and one foot in the camp of terror,” he said.

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