WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is on a rescue mission this week, trying to keep Palestinians and Israelis talking despite open warfare between the two sides that engulfed the Gaza Strip.
Although Israeli troops pulled out of Gaza early Monday, Palestinian leaders exited peace talks, at least temporarily, after Israel launched a major offensive against militant Palestinians who use the tiny Gaza territory controlled by the militant Hamas movement to fire rockets into Israel.
The White House blamed Hamas for causing the fighting between Israelis and Palestinians that has killed more than 100 Palestinians, roughly half of them civilians. One Israeli civilian was killed by a Hamas rocket, and two Israeli soldiers were killed.
"The Palestinians have a choice to make," said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for President Bush's National Security Council. He said it's a choice between terrorism or a political solution that leads to a Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace and security with Israel.
The Israeli offensive has drawn a chorus of international condemnation, with the EU, Turkey and U.N. chief Ban Ki-Moon accusing Israel of using excessive force. But Johndroe would not say if the United States thought Israel was using excessive force.
"We obviously don't want innocent civilians to lose their life," he said. "But I think that started with these rockets that have been fired from Gaza into Israel recently, killing and injuring Israeli citizens in some of their bigger cities."
The crisis has revealed the limitations of the Bush administration's strategy to focus peace efforts on the U.S.-backed West Bank government while cutting off the militant government in Gaza. It also recalls Israel's 2006 war with Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. If the Israeli government chooses to re-enter Gaza it could put the United States in the middle of another conflict.
Gaza, and the Palestinian leadership split that underlies the crisis, is the largest potential deal-killer for Bush's goal to sign a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinian before he leaves office next January.
Thus, new urgency has been infused in Rice's previously scheduled trip to Egypt, the Palestinian territories and Israel.
At Rice's first stop Tuesday in Egypt, Gaza will be her main topic of conversation, according to deputy State Department spokesman Tom Casey, who said the secretary would raise with Egyptian officials both the humanitarian needs of Gazans and continued smuggling of weapons from Egypt into Gaza.
Israel's heavy military response in Gaza has inflamed anger across the Middle East and made it difficult for moderate U.S. allies in the region, principally Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to offer strong public support for the U.S.-backed peace process.
Rice will talk to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas about his decision to suspend talks because of the violence, the White House said.
The secretary was holding a meeting with Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in the West Bank on Tuesday and then separately with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni during her two-day stop. There were no plans to try to bring the Israeli and Palestinian leaders together, but Rice will deliver messages between the camps as well as press the U.S. position that violence should end and talking resume.
Abbas has ruled from the West Bank since his Hamas rivals violently seized control of Gaza last June. But the deaths of Palestinians in Gaza has threatened to unleash a backlash against him in the West Bank. Israel, meanwhile, is under heavy internal pressure to reinvade and disarm the territory it abandoned three years ago as a step toward political accommodation with the Palestinians.
Peace talks Bush inaugurated with presidential fanfare in Annapolis, Md., last fall, have produced no public sign of a breakthrough despite weeks of regular meetings between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators.
Palestinian politicians were sounding discouraged, and Israeli leaders were tempering their optimism, even before the latest violence. U.S. officials have been lowering expectations behind the scenes that there will be the sort of detailed solution that Bush's phrase "signed peace treaty" implies.
Bush used that wording during an upbeat visit to Israel and the West Bank in January. Before and since, other U.S. officials have used more cautious language and say they do not expect a final deal and full Palestinian statehood on Bush's watch.
U.S. officials have told Arab and other diplomats that although the talks are supposed to confront the hardest issues in the six-decade conflict that any peace agreement could be a modest statement that leaves most questions open as a new U.S. administration takes over, Arab Mideast diplomats said last week.
Speaking on condition of anonymity to describe private conversations with U.S. officials, two diplomats with knowledge of the process said that unless the Bush administration provides its own draft for a peace deal, the two sides are unlikely to commit to more than a vague outline this year.
That is assuming the talks resume, and that both Palestinian and Israeli leaders can buck internal political pressure against the kind of even minor concessions they would need to make for a gateway deal.
"There's a good deal of uncertainty about what the American objective actually is," said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who heads the Saban Center, a Mideast think tank affiliated with the Brookings Institution in Washington. "It's confusing and problematic. The United States puts out this highly symbolic and ambitious goal," that looks increasingly out of reach, Indyk said.