Rice Trip Raises Concern Over U.S. Pressure on Israel

By Ori Nir, With Reporting by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Published November 18, 2005, issue of November 18, 2005.
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WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s unusual personal involvement this week in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over a border crossing in Gaza has some Jewish organizations voicing concern about American pressure on Jerusalem.

In what some observers are describing as an unprecedented intervention for the Bush administration, Rice served as a go-between in negotiations Monday between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Rice reportedly pressed both sides, leading to an agreement on the functioning of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt.

“I’m nervous about this,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who earlier this year worked to rally American Jewish support for Prime Minister Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan. Although there is no reason to question the motives of Bush and Rice, he said, the secretary of state may have ended up pressuring Israel to make unwarranted compromises on security issues.

At a Tuesday press conference in Jerusalem, Rice suggested that the administration may very well follow up on this week’s deal with a more aggressive, assertive approach than it has displayed in the past. “I’m still a big believer in having the parties do as much as they possibly can do,” Rice said. But, she added, from time to time the negotiating process between the parties may need the intervention of envoys, or “from time to time I suspect it will need me or maybe even higher authorities — meaning the president.”

Under Tuesday’s deal, the Rafah terminal on the Gaza-Egypt border will open by the end of the month. Palestinians who use the crossing will be monitored by European Union security experts. Israeli officials will be allowed to watch the action at the terminal and ask monitors to search potential terrorist infiltrators or arms smugglers.

Next month, Israel also is to begin allowing Palestinians to travel between Gaza and the West Bank through its territory in secured convoys. Opening Gaza’s borders was deemed a top priority by the Bush administration, which wants to revive the local economy and help the P.A. restore order.

“I worry because there is a basic asymmetry, an imbalance, between the two parties,” Foxman said. “For the Palestinians, it is about status and sovereignty, which could always be adjusted, while for Israel it is about security and trust. And security is something you can’t adjust. If you make a mistake on the scrutiny issue, there is no going back.”

If either party is not comfortable taking risks or making compromises, Foxman said, the United States should not put itself in a position of “forcing the parties to compromise.”

Foxman also questioned the advisability of having Rice assert herself on a relatively technical issue. “Should we expect that at every stage of the game it’s going to be the secretary of state or the president” intervening to facilitate progress between the parties, Foxman said, before suggesting that other matters probably deserved more attention from Rice. “Is this more of a powderkeg than North-Korea?”

David Twersky, director of international affairs for the American Jewish Congress, seconded the notion that Rice had made a mistake by wading into such a technical matter. “For the secretary of state to put her own prestige on the line and essentially do shuttle diplomacy over the Rafah crossing is a tremendous amount of capital to pay for a very small, modest achievement,” he said. “It just shows how bad things are” between Israelis and Palestinians.

“What’s going to happen when there is something really important to discuss?” Twersky asked.

Rice drew praise from at least two left-of-center organizations that support an aggressive American role in advancing Israeli-Palestinian talks, Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum, as well as the centrist American Jewish Committee.

Earlier this month, before her trip to the Middle East, Rice told a delegation of leaders from the Israel Policy Forum that her intention was to pursue an incremental policy in pushing the Israeli-Palestinian peace-process forward, rather than aim for a dramatic breakthrough. The organization’s president, Seymour Reich, said that Rice’s “rolling up her sleeves and staying in Israel until there was an agreement” represented a “new approach” that should be lauded.

Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, disagreed. Focusing on a border agreement, which grants the Palestinians a degree of sovereignty, was akin to “giving your children dessert before they eat their vegetables,” Klein said. Rice should have first made sure that Palestinian leaders fulfilled their obligations to fight terrorism and transform their society into a peace-seeking one, he said.

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