Rice's Personal Mideast Plan

Condoleezza Rice knows something about the corrosive power of hopelessness. She saw a lot of it growing up black in the Jim Crow South, when she lost a young friend to a notorious church bombing and heard her own father, the Rev. John Rice, question the nonviolent struggle of Martin Luther King (the elder Rice even made friends with Black Panther Stokely Carmichael). "I've always been struck how the historical reading of the civil-rights movement is that the nonviolent, peaceful way that it ended happened almost as if it were inevitable," she says. "What is ignored is that even in that context … there was a countermovement growing up that believed that violence and separation was the way." While Rice knows there are big differences between what occurred in the American South and what is now happening in the Middle East, she worries that violent radicalism is spreading there in the absence of an alternative path. Palestinians and Israelis both know by now, she says, "that even ordinary people can be driven to violence if there's no hope."

Rice doesn't like to talk about herself—"I'm not nearly that self-reflective," she says. So the fact that she draws a connection between the hopelessness of the Palestinians and her experience as a black woman in white America is striking. She says she's raised the analogy with both Israelis and Palestinians, whom she's bringing together, along with Arab ministers, for an international peace conference planned for Annapolis, Md., on Nov. 27. That alone is a clear sign of how personally she's taking the mission to create a Palestinian state—a task that has obsessed and defeated many a secretary of State before her.

It's natural to wonder why Rice thinks she can succeed where so many others have not. There are already warning signs: major Arab states that are to be invited to Annapolis say that with a little more than a week left, they have not been told what is on the agenda. "No one knows what is happening," says a senior Arab official in Washington, who was not authorized to speak on the record. "A lot of us are reading the Israeli press [for clues]." Similar criticisms have been levied about Rice's negotiating style, which has involved more gentle prodding than arm-twisting on several trips to the Middle East this year. "You need a very robust involvement of the American administration—you need a brutal president," says former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben Ami. "For all practical purposes it should be almost an imposed settlement. Trust me—otherwise nothing will happen." Condi's predecessor Henry Kissinger is no less firm in saying that success "will require a greater role for the Americans, at some point, as deadlocks develop."

Rice says the Arab states will definitely be brought in at the right moment, and she has consulted with many of her peacemaking predecessors, including Bill Clinton, author of the last failed effort at Camp David in 2000. (Their talk was "very helpful," she says.) But she reaches back to her past again to defend her strategy, which she says is to induce the two parties to take ownership of the talks—and to avoid backing anyone into a corner just yet. "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 ... 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'."

By all accounts Rice is a somewhat unpracticed but able negotiator. "She's tough as nails," says a senior Israeli official, noting her ability to seize on casual statements and force the speaker to commit to them publicly. She knows that neither Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert nor Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas may be politically strong enough to deliver on what are known as final-status commitments—the toughest issues, including Jerusalem and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. 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. Faced with continuing missile attacks from Gaza, Olmert will find it tough to hand over large parts of East Jerusalem to the Palestinians. Many expect the result to be a kind of "maybe" state with provisional borders and some issues unresolved.

But part of Rice's confidence comes from thinking that for the first time in memory both Israeli and Palestinian leaders want a deal as much as Washington. "There is an image of the United States' frenetically trying to get the two sides to an agreement. It hadn't worked. So with all due respect I'll try it my way," she says. Her way has gotten her far in America. We'll soon see how far it gets her in the Mideast.