Condoleezza Rice has a lot in common with her secret new soul mate, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Both are women with razor-sharp intellects, center-right convictions and an odd blend of rigid righteousness and pragmatism. Both work under men whose popularity has plummeted because of the bungled conduct of a war (Iraq for George Bush, Lebanon for Ehud Olmert). And both realize that this vulnerability, combined with the even greater weakness of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, has made the timing ripe for a new strategy for an Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Up until now, Rice has not spearheaded any ambitious new diplomatic initiatives in the manner of the predecessors she admires, such as George Marshall, Dean Acheson and Henry Kissinger. But a Palestinian-Israeli peace could transform her legacy. Rice has told friends in Washington that she sees her latest trip to the region as the beginning of a prolonged, personal effort to achieve a breakthrough.
Rice and Livni discussed their new approach in Washington in early December, and since then they have had frequent phone conversations. Their strategy is to put aside the step-by-step road map, which requires that the Palestinians dismantle their terrorist infrastructure before any new phase of negotiations begins, and instead leap right to final-status talks with moderate Palestinians about what a two-state solution would look like. If a suitable framework for a Palestinian state is reached, Abbas would then go to his people with a referendum: Do you want it or not? He is convinced that more than 70% would vote yes, thus marginalizing the Hamas resisters. Olmert would do the same, and probably get close to the same support.
The outlines of a two-state framework are clear. Everyone knows, within a few hundred yards or so, where the borders would be, and a variety of land swaps could be worked out so that Israel could keep some of its major settlements that are on its side of its new security barrier. Perhaps some Israeli land containing Arab communities could be swapped to the Palestinians, but Bush would go along with that only if the affected Arab-Israelis agree. The issue of Jerusalem and the rights of refugees could be compromised along the lines almost agreed to in 2000, with an international fund providing incentives for Palestinian refugees to return to the new Palestinian state. Livni has quietly been meeting with Palestinian moderates, and they support this approach.
Both Rice and Livni face hard-liners in their governments who want to stick to the road map and make any movement on the peace process contingent on the Palestinians halting terrorism and cease-fire violations. But that gives Hamas veto power over all progress and could require Israel to occupy the West Bank indefinitely. "The principle of two nation-states is not only an Israeli gift to the Palestinians but a promotion of Israel's interests," Livni says.
Bush has come down on the side of pursuing a two-state framework now. To White House visitors he has provided his own savvy analysis of Olmert's precarious political situation and how both Olmert and Abbas need a breakthrough. Left unspoken is that Bush could use one as well. That is why he is sending Rice to make such an effort.