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Rice’s Misplaced Priorities

Barely three months after the entire Arab world allegedly united around Israeli-Palestinian peace, the Bush administration is struggling to keep its Annapolis “process” relevant. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will embark on yet another trip to Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority, aiming to calm the crisis in Gaza that has postponed Israeli-Palestinian talks indefinitely.

As usual, the odds are stacked against Rice. In the past five days, over 100 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, while Hamas has added to its Qassam rocket repertoire, firing longer-range Iranian-made Grad rockets at Ashkelon. Meanwhile, pro-western Arab states that supported peace at Annapolis are backing Hamas: Jordan has accused Israel of a “flagrant violation” of international law, while Saudi Arabia has compared Israel’s offensive to Nazi war crimes.

Indeed, a diplomatic breakthrough at this moment is so unlikely as to beg the question: why is Rice even bothering? After all, insofar as the current fighting in Gaza will likely be confined to the strip, relatively few strategic interests are at stake. In this vein, Egypt has reportedly doubled its Rafah border troops and permitted only four injured Palestinians to cross into Sinai amidst the fighting, while Hamas’ call for 50,000 Palestinians to breach the Erez crossing and storm into Israel failed miserably.

Yet the same cannot be said of the ongoing presidential crisis in Beirut, where the implications will likely be felt beyond Lebanon’s borders. For starters, Syria has been widely accused of interfering with Lebanon’s political process. Meanwhile, Hezbollah—which has stalled negotiations and demanded veto power in the next cabinet—has turned its attention abroad in the wake of Imad Mughniyeh’s assassination. In recent weeks, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has declared preparations for another war with Israel, while an al-Manar correspondent was recently arrested in Morocco planning attacks against Jewish targets with an al-Qaeda offshoot.

To its credit, the Bush administration recognizes the potential for Lebanon’s crisis to extend beyond Lebanon. On Thursday, the administration announced that the USS Cole would be stationed off the Lebanese coast to warn Syria against further interferences. The move further pressed Hezbollah, with Hezbollah legislator Hassan Fadlallah acknowledging, “We are facing an American threat against Lebanon.”

Yet if the Bush administration is to translate this military maneuver into a political victory, it must undertake a serious diplomatic campaign to shore up support for the pro-western Lebanese majority while its adversaries feel threatened. Within the region, such support clearly exists: on Monday, Egypt and Saudi Arabia separately blamed the Asad regime for the political crisis, while Kuwait has announced the deportation of foreigners who mourned for Mughniyeh.

Given the urgency of the situation in Lebanon and potential opportunities for advancing U.S. policy in this theater, Rice’s focus on the Israeli-Palestinian arena during her upcoming trip is severely misplaced. While Middle East peace would be the Holy Grail of any diplomat’s legacy, Rice’s failure to meaningfully pursue diplomatic channels regarding Lebanon might give her a very different legacy. Indeed, if Hezbollah follows through on its rhetoric while Israel battles Hamas in Gaza, it will mark the second two-front Arab-Israeli war of Rice’s tenure.



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