A Middle East Report Card

Condoleezza Rice has just completed her 14th Middle East visit in 15 months and her third since the Annapolis Conference.

The Annapolis effort is scheduled to last one year, wrapping up at the end of the Bush term, but with four months gone, the scorecard makes for predictably depressing reading. Economic conditions and freedom of movement in the West Bank have, if anything, deteriorated -- settlements are expanding, not a single outpost has been dismantled, and Israelis and Palestinians are less secure. Leaders on both sides -- Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas -- have been kept alive politically (and that admittedly was not a given), but they are still in a precariously fragile state.

The Israeli or Palestinian public barely believe in the process, but still, the Bush administration continues to tout its goal of a breakthrough agreement by year-end. President Bush will visit the Middle East in May, and Rice even notched up some minor progress on this trip. So where do things stand, and what are the prospects? Here are five comments on the latest developments:

1. One Step Forward, Two Steps ?

The one deliverable from the Rice visit came from a trilateral meeting she attended with the Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, and the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyed. This produced an agreement on "concrete steps to implement the Roadmap. This is a program that will improve the daily lives of Palestinians and help make Israel secure. ... Prime Minister Fayyad and Defense Minister Barak agreed on points of special, immediate emphasis and work." The agreement includes Israeli commitments to ease certain movement restrictions and to allow additional Palestinian security deployments, building authorizations, and economic projects.

Israel has made similar commitments before and reneged on them. But to even squeeze this list out of Barak was an achievement given the spoiler role he has assumed since returning to government, and this time Secretary Rice promised "a more systematic approach ... to monitoring and verifying."

The Catch 22 is that absent either a political deal or real change in the security environment (such as a comprehensive ceasefire with Hamas) -- and the two are connected -- the Israeli default security position translates into constant backsliding on all these issues.

Take a closer look at that package produced in honor of the secretary's visit:

Palestinian freedom of movement now faces 580 obstacles in the tiny area of the West Bank, more than at the time of Annapolis and about 30 more than at this time last year. Barak committed to removing 50, net change plus or minus 20, and that is if no slippage occurs.

Barak agreed to allow Palestine Authority security deployment in the town of Jenin conditioned on restrictions and coordination regarding its activities. However, the last town that received such treatment was Nablus, and in that experiment the Israel Defense Forces continued ongoing military operations that undermined the PA security efforts and deeply embarrassed the PA leadership. This latest, very public announcement will do nothing to stem the tide of internal Palestinian criticism that increasingly depicts the PA as a puppet of Israel.

The third basket of commitments was described as follows:

"The two sides approved in concept the development of new housing in the West Bank for Palestinians ? Master Plans for 25 Palestinian villages in Area C have been approved."

Nothing like this particular snippet to remind Palestinians just how much Israel still controls their lives and just about everything in the West Bank -- and just how limited the PA mandate is.

Finally -- an understanding on economic projects -- "Both sides have agreed to create a major new industrial park in Tarqumiya" and to hold an "investment conference in Bethlehem." To anyone who has followed the peace- process for the last decade and a half this will sound tragically familiar. Industrial park plans existed before (for example, a $90 million project called the Gaza Industrial Estate and Israel-PA plans for industrial parks in Jenin, Sha'ar Ephraim, Erez and Karni crossings, and Jericho) and stranger than strange, none of them ever seem to materialize. Would it be too mean-spirited to suggest that occupation, attendant insecurity and unpredictability, and undefined borders simply do not provide the best climate for investor confidence or business success?

And yes, that would be the same Bethlehem where Israel conducted a recent extra-judicial killing of four Palestinians resulting in the largest protests that city can remember -- "welcome to happy, holy Bethlehem."

It all sounds rather reminiscent of the Access and Movement Agreement negotiated by Secretary Rice in November 2005 and ignored by everyone else ever since.

Rice does deserve credit for having little faith that this list of action items will produce meaningful change -- one of the successes of her recent diplomacy was to de-link day-to-day issues from the political negotiations and to recognize the limited potential of improvements on the ground absent real political progress. Rice had to produce something, Barak was willing to throw together this pick-'n-mix menu, the PA could at least point to something, and everyone settled for what they could get.

If these measures at least put a brake on the slide to an even worse West Bank situation then that too is an achievement, though the announcements of new Israeli settlement expansion literally hours after the secretary's departure was hardly a good omen.

2. How Many Generals Does It Take To Move A Checkpoint?

The U.S. now has three generals deployed on the Israeli-Palestinian front as envoys with varying mandates and responsibilities. Gen. Keith Dayton oversees Palestinian security sector reform and cooperation, Gen. James Jones looks at regional security issues in the context of a prospective future peace deal, and the newest, Lt. Gen. William Fraser has perhaps the most thankless task -- verifying the implementation of all those Roadmap commitments -- including the new laundry list from this visit. All three are dedicated and respected professionals, but their parallel missions do not enhance their chances of success. The question for Secretary Rice is whether this latest mission served to strengthen or fatally undermine Fraser.

About two and a half weeks ago Fraser convened his first trilateral meeting on Roadmap implementation -- the Palestinian prime minister, Fayyad, showed up, but Israel's minister of defense, Barak, skipped the meeting and sent the senior Defense Ministry strategist Gen. Amos Gilad. It was impossible to pretend that this was not a slap in the face to the new U.S. mission and envoy.

During this trip the secretary of state convened a trilateral meeting -- and lo and behold, Barak found time to grace the occasion with his presence.

One of two things is happening here -- either Barak has now set his bar for attendance at nothing less than the secretary level), or Ms. Rice introduced Mr. Barak to her new envoy and expressed the expectation that the two gentlemen would be seeing rather a lot of each other in the near future. Someone should ask Condi which it is.

3.Where are those peace negotiations at?

The other trilateral meeting on the secretary's schedule during this visit brought her together with the heads of the respective negotiating teams who are working for a framework agreement, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on the Israeli side and her Palestine Liberation Organization counterpart, Abu Ala.

Peace negotiations do not lend themselves to progress reports, half-time updates, or latest scores, so in that respect, the secretary having nothing to announce was absolutely understandable and the act of sitting with and hearing from both sides was a good move. My sources tell me that these negotiations are serious, the ground being covered is significant, and both sides are adopting a constructive, problem-solving approach.

At the same time, precious few people on the Israeli or Palestinian side actually expect a deal to be reached. There is no contradiction here -- with negotiations it ain't over till it's over, and if the negotiations collapse over a 1 percent disagreement or a 90 percent disagreement, the end result is the same.

I would argue that the disconnect here is not related to the sincerity of the negotiators but rather to the environment or context in which the negotiations are taking place and the lack of anything other than an artificial deadline.

The need to take a fresh look at that surrounding environment -- political division on the Palestinian side, Gaza, regional divisions, Syria, etc., is where administration policy still comes up short in ways that are likely to ultimately defeat the Annapolis effort and could even make it counterproductive.

4. Remember Gaza?

Rice barely mentioned Gaza, at least in official comments, during this trip. That may be a good thing. The rhetorical platitudes that tend to accompany any reference to the Gaza situation are not helpful. Perhaps the administration is allowing or even encouraging the quiet, Egyptian-led discussions with Israel, the PA, and Hamas that are aimed at building on the current de-escalation in order to create a sustainable ceasefire.

Probably the best way to improve the prospects for the peace talks would be to improve the security situation for both peoples and re-establish a degree of national dialogue, agreed rules of the game, and, ultimately, unity on the Palestinian side. That will require a locked-in ceasefire at least for Gaza and probably for the West Bank as well, which in turn necessitates not only an end to shooting but also arrangements for opening border crossings and preventing weapons smuggling. Obviously, this requires the engagement, indirectly via third parties, of Hamas.

In addition an effort toward a Hamas-Fatah understanding needs to be relaunched and seen through to a successful conclusion. The Yemenis have recently acted as a go-between, but internal Fatah disagreements are not only derailing that effort but also further tarnishing Fatah's credibility. Playing for time is not helping Fatah. Mahmoud Abbas may not be keen on unity talks, but the apparent continuation of the U.S. (and Israeli) veto of intra-Palestinian talks undermines the likelihood of achievement in a peace process to which both sides are at least outwardly committed.

5. A Region-In-Waiting

There is a price to pay for getting serious on an Israeli-Palestinian peace effort not on day one of an administration but only after day 2,500. Much of the Middle East has already written off this administration and is in a holding pattern awaiting its successor. This is another strike against the administration's last-gasp peace effort. Those actors in the region with whom the Bush administration discourages anyone from engaging (Syria, Iran, Hamas) would probably not be amenable anyway to a new policy opening at this late date. But even the administration's allies (the Saudis, Egyptians, Jordanians) are unlikely to go out on a limb to make a serious effort to be helpful, especially given the domestic political price.

So, what next?

If the current intensification of diplomacy continues and prevents a further deterioration of the situation on the ground and maintains a ceasefire, it will be a positive achievement. If, in addition, the negotiations continue and this administration hands over to its successor an ongoing process then there would certainly be no shame in that. The idea that an administration takes its Middle East peace process home with it, as the Clinton administration did, should not be continued. But to push for a framework agreement under the current circumstances -- an administration Hail Mary peace process pass in '08 -- could well do more harm than good. The last thing Israelis and Palestinians need is another shelf agreement that is not implemented -- and this administration's polices, particularly of excluding key parties, almost guarantee non-implementation.

One could of course change those circumstances by shifting policy to actively promote a ceasefire, encourage Palestinian internal reconciliation and not division, engage Syria, build real region support, and apply real elbow grease to reach closure on a political deal ... none of which currently features in the White House playbook.