It's one of the more remarkable turnarounds of the Bush team.
After seven years of letting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process drift, President Bush has moved the advancement of a Palestinian state to the top of his to-do list.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is staking her reputation, and much more, on holding an international conference before year's end at which a joint Israeli-Palestinian document will lay out a "concrete" basis for the new state. She's made clear she doesn't want this meeting - in Annapolis, Md. - to focus on generalities.
"We, frankly, have better things to do than invite people to Annapolis for a photo op," she said in Ramallah on Monday, standing beside Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. She also said: "I hope everybody understands that (President Bush) has decided to make this one of the highest priorities of his time in office. He is absolutely serious about moving this issue forward and moving it as rapidly as possible to conclusion."
A mammoth gamble
Whew! With the two sides miles apart and so little time left, this is a diplomatic gamble of mammoth proportions. It would take a near miracle for Israelis and Palestinians to bridge their huge gaps before the conference deadline. But a conference flop will boost radical Islamists in Gaza and the West Bank - and throughout the entire Middle East.
I must confess to being torn between admiration for Rice's chutzpah at taking on this issue at such a late date, and concern she has gotten in way over her head.
Back in 2002, Bush called for two states - Israel and Palestine - side by side. But the administration let the peace process drift, focusing instead on Iraq. The administration's Iraq hawks were hostile to the peace process from the getgo; they claimed the road to peace in Jerusalem led through success in Baghdad.
Once that illusion died, the White House had a fresh chance to pick up the Arab-Israeli thread in 2004, when Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat died. But the White House failed to bolster the new President Abbas in 2005 when it might have made a crucial difference, choosing instead to back a unilateral Israeli pullout from Gaza. The predictable result: the Islamist party Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip.
So why take on this overwhelming problem now? Bush laid out one reason in tortured prose at a press conference this week. He said "a serious, focused effort to step up a (Palestinian) state" would give "the people who want to reject extremism ... something to be for." I think that means the following: In a region where the Iraq mess has magnified anti-Americanism and rallied support for Islamists, a serious U.S. effort to facilitate a Palestinian state might undercut the trend.
A second reason: The administration believes this is an optimum moment to draw Sunni Arab states that don't now recognize Israel into the peace process. Most important, Saudi Arabia, concerned about the regional gains of Iran, would dearly love to see progress on the Palestinian issue. Bush said on Wednesday he hoped the international meeting would "get Arab buy-in for a state."
Rice taking the lead
But the muscle behind the Annapolis conference has come from Rice. She has shifted sharply from encouraging a vague "meeting" meant to explore a "political horizon" for peace negotiations. Now she is pushing for a "substantive conference" and urging the two sides to reach accord on "core issues." This means such explosive topics as the boundaries of the Palestinian state, how to divide Jerusalem, and whether Palestinian refugees from 1947-48 and their descendants should have any right to return to Israel, or should be resettled in the new Palestinian state.
The Palestinian question seems to have engaged Rice's deepest emotions. Rabbi David Rosen, one of those present at her meeting with Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religious leaders in Jerusalem, told the Washington Post: "She spoke with a spiritual passion about the need for peace and overcoming pain and grievance."
Bush, too, seems to have gotten emotional over the peace process. Last week he told an interviewer from the Arab television network Al-Arabiya: "I believe in my soul, in my heart, that not only is it necessary that there be two states living side by side in order to achieve peace, but it's possible. I'm very optimistic we can achieve a two-state solution."
The problem, as we have learned to our cost, is that presidential optimism (or that of the secretary of state) is not sufficient to make good things happen.
Rice admits she's pursuing a risky track by announcing an international meeting before participants are anywhere near agreement. She says she did it to mobilize the two sides to make progress.
But both Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert are politically weak. If Abbas accepts a document that doesn't spell out details of the "core issues" - providing a framework for negotiating a final agreement - his public will reject it. If Olmert agrees to such details - rather than endorsing a loosely worded proposal - his government may fall.
Meantime, the Saudis are unlikely to attend the Annapolis affair unless there are specifics in the document, preferably along the lines of the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002. This proposal calls for a return to 1967 boundaries in return for normalization of relations with Israel by Arab states.
Rice knows previous Israeli-Arab peace meets were preceded by months of intense diplomacy, including repeated shuttles to the Middle East by her predecessors. She is trying to compress into weeks what took them many months.
Region in immense flux
I spoke on Wednesday with one of Israel's smartest political analysts and former member of Knesset, Naomi Chazan, who was one of a group of Israeli civic activists that dined with Rice in Israel this week. I asked what she thought of Rice's effort.
Chazan, in Philadelphia to speak for the New Israel Forum, said she felt that Rice was "extremely serious. She believes the regional context is in immense flux. It's like the planets shifting. You intervene before they find their new place."
Chazan felt that Rice was "absolutely right" to try to reach an agreement, even so late. Why? Because, says Chazan, even Israeli right-wing parties now talk of a "two-state solution. It is key to Israeli's survival as a state with a Jewish majority, and time is running out."
So here we have Rice trying to do the right thing, but probably too late, with Palestinian and Israeli leaders unlikely to deliver. Rice believes, as she said last year during the brutal Israel-Lebanon war, that we are seeing the "birth pangs of a new Middle East." She has decided belatedly that she can shape the outcome by helping achieve a Palestinian state.
Indeed, the Middle East is in flux, in large part because the Iraq war has unsettled the entire region. Ditto the Lebanon war. Rice has announced this Annapolis meeting, so presumably it must go forward. We can only hope she succeeds.
- Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.