Bush Middle East Efforts End with Little Progress

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McClatchy Newspapers

Bush Middle East Efforts End with Little Progress

by
Dion Nissenbaum

United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice holds a joint press conference with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, not seen, at the U.S. ambassador to Israel's residence in Herzliya, Israel, Thursday, Nov. 6, 2008. The Bush administration conceded Thursday that an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal by a year-end deadline is no longer possible. (AP Photo/Pavel Wolberg, Pool)

JERUSALEM - Outgoing U.S. Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice is wrapping up the Bush administration's yearlong
attempt to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace with little to show for her
investment.

When she hands off the diplomatic baton to
President-elect Barack Obama's administration in January, Rice will
pass along a diplomatic initiative that has helped to dispel the mutual
distrust that chilled peace talks for seven years.

Beyond
that, there have been few tangible successes since Bush launched his
late-term diplomatic push last November in Annapolis, Md.

Since
Annapolis, Israel has defied U.S. pressure by building hundreds of new
homes in disputed West Bank settlements and expanded its network of
security roadblocks that impede Palestinian economic development.

The
Palestinians remain divided, with hard-line Hamas leaders who refuse to
recognize Israel holding firm control of the Gaza Strip. That reality
has always made striking a peace deal with Palestinian Authority
President Mahmoud Abbas problematic at best.

"The Annapolis
process was dead on arrival, and anyone who thought otherwise was
deceiving themselves," said Yossi Alpher, a former Israeli Mossad
official who serves as co-director of www.bitterlemons.org, a Web site that focuses on Middle East politics.

The
major players in the talks met Sunday on the Red Sea coast in Egypt in
a bid to keep the process from being sidetracked when Bush steps aside
for Obama.

The Middle East Quartet ended the meeting in Sharm
el-Sheik by endorsing the Israeli-Palestinian talks as "substantial and
promising."

"They have succeeded in putting in place a solid
negotiating structure for continued progress in the future," the
quartet, made up of the United States, the United Nations, Russia and
the European Union, said after the meeting.

The Bush administration's most tangible success this year has come in rebuilding the Palestinian police force.

After
watching the Palestinian Authority security forces swiftly routed from
the Gaza Strip last year in a humiliating showdown with Hamas
militants, the United States revved up efforts to build a reliable
Palestinian security service in the West Bank.

The Palestinian
Authority soldiers received U.S.-backed training, European Union
support and Israeli-approved weapons before being dispatched to the
bellwether West Bank cities of Nablus, Hebron and Jenin.

So far, the small-but-expanding forces have drawn cautious public praise.

This
past weekend, Rice became the first U.S. secretary of state to visit
Jenin, one of the biggest Israeli-Palestinian flashpoints that the Bush
administration sought to showcase as a security success.

Beyond the police program, though, there have been few concrete steps to help create a better climate for peace talks.

Despite
repeated vows to contain Israeli settlement building in the West Bank,
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has pressed ahead with extensive new
construction. West Bank development plans under Olmert are up more than
1,600 percent from last year.

Since Annapolis, the number of Jewish settlers living in the West Bank has grown by 3 percent.

And
Israel has set up dozens more roadblocks around the West Bank that the
World Bank warned last month were stifling economic development that is
essential for building a stable Palestinian state.

The World Bank
report noted that 38 percent of the West Bank is reserved for the
461,000 Jewish settlers who represent about 25 percent of the
population.

Beyond the West Bank, Israel's biggest post-Annapolis
security breakthrough came by cutting a ceasefire deal not with Abbas,
but with Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip.

Israel agreed to a six-month ceasefire that is set to expire next month.

That
agreement has largely held. But the relative quiet suffered its biggest
test this past weekend when Israeli troops entered Gaza to destroy a
tunnel the military said was to be used to launch a kidnapping
operation in Israel.

The clashes are a reminder that Hamas has the ability to scuttle any peace deal Abbas strikes with Israel.

Negotiations are likely to change in the coming year because of changes in political leadership.

Bush is giving way to Obama, who says he won't let inertia overwhelm peace talks.

But it's unclear who Obama will deal with, since Israel holds new elections three weeks after he takes office in January.

Israelis
could elect the less conciliatory Benjamin Netanyahu as their next
prime minister. Netanyahu would be less likely to offer the
Palestinians the same kinds of concessions Olmert was prepared to make
- such as giving parts of Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority.

And
the Palestinians remain divided between Hamas and Abbas, with no
immediate hope of reconciliation: This past weekend, Egypt postponed
talks designed to re-establish a Palestinian unity government between
the two rivals.

Special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this report from Jerusalem.

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