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Failure to Launch

Condoleezza Rice and her boss have finally heeded calls to "re-engage" in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Think tanks, advocacy organizations, members of Congress, Tony Blair, King Abdullah of Jordan, the Iraq Study Group, and others have all cited such involvement as a key way to dig the administration out of its foreign policy hole. They argue that renewed U.S. leadership in the conflict will help solve a panoply of U.S. foreign policy problems ranging from the Iraq war to terrorism to the rise of anti-Americanism globally. Some have speculated that the secretary of state and president view a Middle East breakthrough as their last, best hope for a legacy that goes beyond the failures of Iraq.

In a unique showing of diplomatic sisterhood, Rice and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni have partnered in a high-profile initiative purportedly aimed at rejuvenating a number of different moribund peace plans. These include the frayed 2002 Road Map, charted in Washington, and a Saudi proposal proffered that same year. Rice has jetted to the region three times this year to convene talks between the parties.

But Rice's shuttle diplomacy efforts aren't working--and they shouldn't be expected to. For reasons of timing, personality, and politics (both in the region and back home) current efforts to jumpstart the peace process won't go anywhere. If the Bushies were paying any attention, they'd know this.

As Rice herself has acknowledged, the creation of a Palestinian unity government bringing together Hamas and Fatah in February made her challenge harder. That government has made clear it does not intend to fulfill at least the first two out of the three preconditions laid down for international recognition of a Hamas-led government: recognizing Israel, renouncing violence, and committing to adhere to past agreements. The result is that one of the parties to Rice's mediation is a government non grata.

Then there are leadership problems on the Israeli side, too. The fraught Lebanon war waged last summer dashed hopes that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert could pick up the mantle of his predecessor and patron, the fallen (and still comatose) Ariel Sharon. Olmert's blunders have shaken the Israeli people's sense of security, pushing the country into a cagey posture that makes bold moves forward nearly impossible. Livni now waits in the wings, using her alliance with Rice to build global stature that may help her replace a damaged Olmert.

The third leg of the stool--Washington--is equally if not more weak. U.S. leverage over Israel's Arab neighbors is at a historic low. The Saudis reportedly just snubbed Bush by canceling a state dinner the White House had planned for their king. Between Iraq and mushrooming scandals back home, Bush lacks the muscle and attention span to do the sort of global cajoling necessary to get the main parties, their supporters, and key global powers onto the same page. And no one else can do it for him.

Meanwhile, the facts on the ground are getting worse, not better. Hamas is borrowing from Hezbollah's playbook by stockpiling weapons and explosives in underground lairs, waiting (and maybe planning) for a major confrontation. The organization is also arraying its own counterweight to the Fatah-controlled Palestinian security force, an irregular militia that Israel claims is being trained in Iran. Negotiations over the release of an Israeli soldier captured last summer have stalled.

These stumbling blocks were depressingly predictable. Throughout his first term, Bush was rightly criticized by Democrats for failing to pick up where Bill Clinton had left off, instead leaving the peace process to stagnate and, like a motionless bicycle, falter. While Bush declared his support for a two-state solution, his hands-off approach caused the two parties to drift away from the rapprochement that Clinton nearly pulled off in his waning days in office. Washington's shock at Hamas's ascension to power in the Palestinian election last January proved that the neglect was anything but benign.

Still, the most recent calls for engagement have tended to be either cynical or misguided. Once Iraq went into a tailspin, the moment for intensive U.S. engagement in the Middle East peace process passed. America's political credibility in the region, its diplomatic resources, and its sway with key supporting players have all been spent. While Democrats are right not to drop their calls for reviving the process, they know as well as anyone that the timing is badly off.

For this and other reasons, the idea that a graceful exit from Iraq could come in the form of an Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough has never made sense. The Iraq Study Group's report maintained that the region's conflicts were "inextricably linked," but it failed to explain how the decades-long Israel-Palestinian conflict was suddenly going to get settled in time to help calm three years of sectarian strife in Iraq.

Why has the administration bothered to mount a diplomatic initiative that's bound to stall? For one, it gives the secretary of state something to talk about other than Iraq. It also gets her out of Washington, where patience for the administration is running out. Mindful that there are those who really believe Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be linked, the administration may think it can deflect responsibility for Iraq's tailspin onto the failure of a wider circle of powers to get their region under control.

That's not to say no good will come out of Rice's efforts. The United States is getting used to being back in the driver's seat of the Mideast peace process, even if the car is at a standstill for now. The parties, as of last week, have agreed to meet every fortnight to discuss practical and logistical issues. This may mean that, assuming a new administration can bring new credibility, the diplomatic engine can fire up more quickly than it would be able to otherwise. That's better than the utter indifference the Bushies showed toward the peace process during their first six years in office. But not by much.

By Suzanne Nossel