Hirsh: Time for a Mideast Peace Envoy

George W. Bush dearly wants to leave behind a Palestinian state--and some measure of Mideast peace—as his legacy. And Condoleezza Rice, the president's alter ego on foreign policy, is determined to do all she can to make it happen. The secretary of State flies off to the region Thursday for another in a series of meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas—two politically weak leaders who, like Bush, would love to make a success of the planned peace conference in Annapolis, Md., later this fall.

The problem? This isn't going to happen without high-level, full-time American mediation—as opposed to, say, sporadic visits. The issues are just too difficult. And Rice is just too distracted. Case in point: on her way to meet with Olmert and Abbas over the weekend, she'll spend two days in Turkey, trying to talk Ankara out of invading Northern Iraq to take out the thousands of Kurdish PKK rebels who have fled there. Rice will also participate in the second Iraq regional conference in Turkey. On top of that, she's now facing an angry revolt by her own State Department employees who resent her effort to order them to Baghdad. And she'll be bogged down with more blowback from the Blackwater debacle after a devastating report by her own envoys assigned culpability for such out-of-control security contractors to the State Department itself. Among the myriad other issues that are engulfing Rice: Iran's continued defiance, nailing down the North Korea nuclear deal and so on.

Condi Rice is a master multitasker, but she must perforce work on the Palestinian issue part time. Meanwhile other forces are at work around the clock undermining Palestinian statehood. The most dangerous of these is Hamas. Abbas, even if he agrees to terms with Olmert, doesn't control the security forces necessary to make the new Palestinian state work. Those belong to the more powerful Hamas, which wants no part of a pact with Israel. And new evidence is emerging that while Rice, the Israelis, Palestinians and Arab states are haggling over a piece of paper to come out of Annapolis—a joint statement—Hamas is building up its military at a great rate, in part to rain ever-more sophisticated rockets on Israel but possibly also for another onslaught on Abbas's Fatah base in the West Bank. Hamas would like nothing better than to make Abbas and Olmert look like fools by actively undermining whatever peace they achieve. "Hamas wants to demonstrate that Olmert has made a deal with a guy who doesn't control the guns, and it has the capacity to do so," says Aaron David Miller, a longtime U.S. Mideast negotiator and author of a forthcoming book entitled "Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace."

The weak link here is Egypt, which is looking the other way while Hamas uses its safe haven in Gaza to rebuild its military with an astonishing array of munitions and weaponry smuggled over the strip's border with Egypt. According to one Western security source, Hamas has brought in 1,500 new antitank launchers, 2,000 rockets, 8,000 rifles and 70 tons of explosives since the beginning of 2007. The group has also used the relative safety granted it by Israel's withdrawal from Gaza to reorganize its military along the regimented lines of Hizbullah. And in the last several weeks, Israeli officials believe that 80 Iranian-trained terrorists were quietly allowed through the border crossing near Rafaq.

Rice, asked about this growing problem at an Oct. 24 congressional hearing, said she had spoken to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak about it on her last trip. "We agreed that the United States would soon send a senior delegation to help with the Egyptians and the Israelis and the Palestinians to see what further steps might be taken to deal with the smuggling," she said. That "senior delegation," which is to arrive next week, consists of a deputy assistant secretary of State and a deputy assistant secretary of Defense. Officials on that level lack the status to influence leaders like Mubarak. U.S. officials also point out that David Welch, Rice's respected assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, is at work on this and other issues surrounding Annapolis full time. "There's a lot of handholding," says an administration official involved in the talks. "Look at [Rice's] travel schedule. She is spending a lot of time on this. I think she feels she's spending the amount of time she needs to."

Sorry, but it's just not enough. First of all, Welch—though a consummate, hardworking diplomat—is not senior enough to resolve such titanic issues on his own. "He's not engaging the leaders," says Dennis Ross, who for many years was senior U.S. Mideast envoy for both Republican and Democratic administrations and recently summed up the lessons he learned in a book called "Statecraft." "When I'd go out there I shuttled back and forth, seeing leaders 20 times in 10 days." Since the beginning, the Bush administration has had the disconcerting habit of simply stating its expectations of what other governments will do, then waiting for them to fall into line. Rice's statement to Congress was typical. "I believe that the Egyptians understand that it is not in their national interest to have the smuggling take place," she said.

Well, no, that's not exactly how it works. First, the regime in Cairo is weaker than it has been in a generation. The aging Hosni Mubarak is on his way out, and there remains considerable doubt whether his son Gamal will command enough loyalty from the army to succeed him. So Cairo is, like most of the Arab regimes, hedging its bets over whether it wants to back Abbas, and it is actively appeasing the newly empowered Hamas. No surprise there: Islamist forces are rising in all these Arab countries—in the most recent parliamentary election in Egypt in December 2005, the Muslim Brotherhood (Hamas is a Palestinian spinoff of the Egyptian group) quadrupled its strength from 20 seats to 80. The upshot: getting the Egyptians to crack down on Hamas will require some high-level strong-arming from Washington, preferably by using the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid as leverage. Both the president and Rice must deliver that message repeatedly.

The larger issue here is that if Annapolis is to produce something more than a piece of paper and a photo op, the groundwork has to be laid now. Washington can't simply let Abbas and Olmert haggle out issues that are so intractable it's unlikely either leader has the political strength to commit to them. For example, Abbas is going to have to accept a long-term Israeli military presence in his new state; Israel will never repeat the unilateral withdrawals it made from Lebanon and Gaza, which empowered Hizbullah and Hamas, respectively. Olmert, for his part, is going to have to confront final-status issues like handing over large parts of East Jerusalem to the Palestinians, a move most Israelis will resist fiercely in the face of Hamas's continuing attacks. Yet right now U.S. officials say Olmert and Abbas are being left to figure all this out on their own. "We're not sitting in on that," says the administration official.

Both Ross and Miller applaud the Bush administration's eleventh-hour efforts to forge a peace at Annapolis after years of neglecting the Israeli-Palestinian issue. But both former negotiators are disturbed by the lack of intensive attention to detail by Bush and Rice. They point to the contrast with Secretary of State Jim Baker's efforts to convene the 1991 Madrid conference, which set the Oslo peace process in motion. That took nine months of frenzied diplomacy, with both Baker and President George H.W. Bush involved every step of the way. "The level of effort by the secretary of State was dramatically greater then," says Ross. There is also a cavalier expectation by the Bush administration that neighboring countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt will simply show up in Annapolis, though their leaders are notably cool to the conference. The point, however, is to get these officials not just to appear but to commit to specifics before they even arrive. "At Madrid there was a constant effort to work out the terms of the invitation letter," says Ross. "What you're trying to create is not just their presence so you have a nice picture but the reality of everyone signing up to certain set of commitments."

Every major peace process that has had any measure of success has benefited from intensive, high-level guidance by either the top cabinet official or the U.S. president himself. There was Baker at Madrid. There was Henry Kissinger spending several weeks shuttling back and forth to make peace between the Israelis and Arabs in 1973. Jimmy Carter took two weeks off in 1978 to devote himself to the Israeli-Egypt peace achieved at Camp David. Going further back, Woodrow Wilson spent six months in Paris to negotiate the Versailles Treaty in 1919, and Teddy Roosevelt closeted himself with Japanese and Russian delegates for a month in August 1905 to achieve his Nobel Prize-winning peace accord ending the Russo-Japanese war (eliciting Henry Adams's admiring comment that he was "the best herder of emperors since Napoleon"). There's no question Rice wants a deal of the magnitude of those agreements. "She's really committed to this," says Miller, "because in about a year she could join the company of the inconsequential secretaries of State. She needs to deliver something that she owns."

But even more important than that: Rice and Bush must at all costs avoid failure at Annapolis, which could make Hamas the dominant player in the Palestinian world for a generation and set off a new intifada. And if Condi is this distracted, wouldn't it be better to have someone working on it full time? There are several first-rate U.S. negotiators who are available these days: among them, Dennis Ross (though he's not looking for the job) and that consummate Bush family fixer, Jim Baker himself. For peace's sake, hire them.