Hirsh: Rice’s Mideast Legacy

Nearly seven years into her tenure as one of the most powerful women in the world--George W. Bush's alter ego--Condi Rice is still known for her icy self-control and self-assurance. In coming weeks she will need those qualities and much more as she embarks on the biggest gamble of her life--a potential deal for Palestinian statehood. For a woman who has spent most of her time in Washington in Bush's shadow, the Annapolis peace conference planned for the last week of November is truly the first all-Condi show. She's working harder on it than she has on any other issue, and there are some early positive signs: Rice recently returned from the Mideast with a pledge from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to put "final-status" issues like borders and the role of Jerusalem on the agenda. That was a considerable triumph for her, one that collapses the long-term "Roadmap" the Bush team has adhered to since 2003 into a much more accelerated process, and which gives the Arab states some of what they have been demanding.

So much is now at stake, both for Rice personally and for the United States. If Annapolis succeeds, it could give Rice the most sought after of diplomatic laurels--one that has eluded everyone from Jimmy Carter to James Baker to Bill Clinton--and rescue her from ignominy as an architect of the Iraq War. If Annapolis fails, it will likely turn the radical Hamas group into the dominant player in the Palestinian world for years, empower its sponsor, Iran, and even set off a new intifada.

Rice is above all a doer and a "problem solver" (her own description). She's not the kind of person who gets in a nervous tizzy about great events. Yes, a Palestinian state before she leaves office, even one with provisional borders, would be a hugely redeeming achievement for her, as even her close friend Mary Bush, a former Reagan administration official (and no relation to George W.), acknowledges. "Nobody can deny that it would be great for her personally, but she is doing it because she thinks it's the right thing to do," says Bush. Yet Rice has even more than redemption invested in this. In a revealing interview with NEWSWEEK, Rice talked about how her own history as a black woman overcoming odds in white America has shaped her thinking about the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Growing up as the child of parents who taught her that wallowing in victimhood was useless, Rice discovered the desperate need the human psyche has for empowerment--what Plato once called thymos, or the need for justice. While her parents instilled a great deal of pride in her, she says, she experienced firsthand what is like to feel powerless, as so many angry Palestinian youths feel today. And she hasn't forgotten. "The prolonged experience of depravation and humiliation can radicalize even normal people," she told an audience of Israelis and American officials in Jerusalem recently.

Rice, however, was also inspired by what Martin Luther King's idealism of nonviolence meant to blacks of her generation as a path out of that humiliation. And while she knows it would be impolitic to say it, for her statehood for the Palestinians may be in some ways analogous to what the Civil Rights Act meant for disenfranchised African-Americans of Rice's generation. "My fear is that if Palestinian reformers cannot deliver on the hope of an independent state, then the moderate center could collapse forever and the next generation of Palestinians could become lost souls of unbridled extremism," she said.

Even so, Rice is wary of pushing too hard. She hopes to induce the two parties to think they are negotiating on their own, rather than being pushed into it--and to string things along sufficiently in order to avoid a firm "no" on any issue. "Once somebody says 'no,' it's very hard to get to yes," she says. "You have to keep working until they at least have a chance to say maybe. My father had a line he used very often. He used to say to people, 'If you make me give you an answer today, the answer is no. If you can wait till tomorrow, the answer's maybe." It is this philosophy that is leading to prod Palestinians and Israelis both to what many expect to be a kind of "maybe" state, one with provisional borders and with some final-status issues unresolved but which represents some measure of hope nonetheless.

Beyond that, Rice understands now that resolving the Palestinian issue is critical to rescuing Mideast stability, which she and Bush did so much to dismantle without leaving behind (yet) a positive model of recovery. "I fully accept that the decisions that the president made did undo a lot of that [old] Middle East," she says. "So now … we have an opportunity to try to rebuild." As her former top aide, Philip Zelikow, puts it: "The paramount problem is what is the future of the Arab and Muslim world and how it relates to modernity and globalization. What do they want to be when they grow up? … The Palestinian issue is not at [the] center of that framework, but moving down that process is essential to progress because this issue is a source of constant resentment across the Arab world that makes it harder to focus on the future. They keep looking at this open sore instead of thinking of what they're going to do tomorrow."

Rice, more than any other senior Bush administration official, has been willing to adjust her thinking about all this--and to react to the mistakes of the first Bush term, even if she's not eager to acknowledge them. Two examples: her push for diplomacy with Iran and her willingness to cut a deal with another member of the first-term "Axis of Evil," North Korea. Another is her willingness to set aside the Roadmap, a very pro-Israeli document that allowed the Jewish state to put aside final-status issues until the Palestinians had ceased terrorist activities. "People were stuck on the Roadmap," says Zelikow. "What we are doing now is leapfrogging the Roadmap."

Rice's argument is that the moment is now ripe, despite the 800-pound gorilla in the room that is Hamas, with its near-total control of Gaza and its refusal to recognize Israel or stop terrorist activities. For the first time in memory, there is both an Israeli and a Palestinian leader who wants a new state. Rice, again, won't say this, but it's clear that this is true for the simple reason that both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas need one badly. Neither man has any other claim to prestige or popularity. Abbas has been eclipsed by Hamas. Olmert exists as Israel's leader only because the (now revered) Ariel Sharon suffered a stroke. Both know that achieving a Palestinian state is the only way of redeeming themselves. It is Abbas's only means of persuading his people that he, not Hamas, represents the future; it is Olmert's only way of justifying his existence atop Israeli politics at all.

At the same time, however, it's clear that neither Olmert nor Abbas is politically strong enough to deliver on major final-status commitments. So how is it possible, I asked Rice, for this whole thing to succeed if the United States didn't play a stronger role--the kind of enforcer role Jim Baker played before the Oslo agreement, or Clinton played at Camp David? "They haven't gotten to where they are now because of the absence of a U.S. role in helping them get there," she responded, alluding to her quiet part in pushing for Annapolis to be about substance--final status--and not just a photo op. "There is an image of the United States frenetically trying to get the two sides to an agreement. [But] it hadn't worked. So with all due respect, I'll try it my way, because it hasn't worked. In the final analysis, something has always prevented the Israelis and Palestinians from getting there."

Rice doesn't disguise what she thinks that "something" is. In her speech in Jerusalem, she ever-so-gently chided some of the peacemakers of the past for trying to force unwilling and resistant leaderships on both sides into deals that the U.S. might have wanted more than they did. "The traditional idea had focused largely … on negotiating the contours of a Palestinian state, its borders, the refugee solution, Jerusalem, all essential but I submit to you not sufficient for peace," she said. "Because what was needed was also to address the character of the Palestinian state: would it fight terrorists, would it govern justly." All by way of saying: aren't you glad we waited until now, and held an election that revealed Hamas to be the rogue group that it is?

Still, there's the question of whether Rice fully understands how intensive and comprehensive the nitty-gritty of the talks will be. And whether she's simply too distracted by the myriad other issues on her plate. One early danger sign: nearly two weeks after her return, neighboring Arab states say they still haven't gotten wind of the agenda for Annapolis. Rice admits she's got a lot to do--not least of which is to prevent Pakistan from sliding into chaos and the hard-liners at her rear from going to war with Iran--but she also notes that when Jim Baker negotiated the Madrid meeting leading to the Oslo process, he had to deal with the Soviet Union's collapse, as well. And she tells NEWSWEEK that she expects her role will grow as the talks head toward their conclusion, while she will try mightily to avoid the pitfalls of Clinton's Camp David approach. That, she notes, pushed Arafat beyond where he was ready to go, ending in the second intifada. "There's a principle here--which is that if you don't recognize that there's a certain pace of the parties coming to an understanding of where they are and where they can go, I think you have the potential to push them beyond where they can go and have everything come apart," she says. "Yes, the time's come when you have to try to help solve a problem that maybe they've gotten stuck on, maybe you see something that they don't quite see, that there really aren't more overlaps between them. Perhaps the time will come when we have to look more intensively at where that overlap is." But with just 13 months left to do all this--and having wasted more than two years since Arafat's death--she may find herself doing that (and emulating Bill Clinton) sooner than she thinks.