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Rice bids farewell to Middle East

Condoleezza Rice with Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert
Condoleezza Rice built close relationships but failed to bring peace

By Wyre Davies
BBC News, Jerusalem

As Condoleezza Rice left the Middle East, probably for the last time as US secretary of state, no-one could remember exactly how many times she'd been to the region in pursuit of an elusive Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

Some commentators and journalists said it was her 19th trip, the United States Embassy in Tel Aviv said it was her 22nd visit.

The exact number of flights clocked up by Condi in the last couple of years, in particular since the Annapolis summit in 2007, doesn't really matter.

What does, is whether she has anything substantial to show for it, besides an awful lot of air miles.

The short answer is "No".

A deadline, imposed by President George W Bush for a comprehensive peace deal to be reached by the end of his presidency, has proved impossible to meet.

An even more modest "framework agreement" wasn't even reachable.

The Quartet
Ms Rice leaves the Quartet with unfinished business

For a diplomat with such undoubted intelligence and personal skills, saying goodbye and leaving empty-handed after her final meeting of the international Quartet in Sharm El Sheikh, must have been hard to take.

It would be churlish to question the secretary of state's resolve or her personal commitment to the process.

She developed strong relationships both with the Israelis and the Palestinians and did not appear to admit failure until almost the very last moment, telling journalists on her last flight to the Middle East: "Obviously Israel is in the middle of elections and that is a constraint…. I think that whatever happens by the end of the year, you've got a firm foundation for quickly moving forward to a conclusion."

Despite a period of relative calm in the region, compared to the violence of previous years, there were ultimately too many obstacles - beyond the control of Secretary Rice or other interlocutors in the Quartet - standing in the way of an agreement.

Internal Palestinian divisions, most notably the violent takeover of Gaza by Hamas, often served to weaken the authority and ability to manoeuvre of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

His opposite number, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, was equally damaged and constrained by allegations of bribery and corruption that eventually forced his resignation.

It was also notable that President Bush did not really engage on a personal level in the peace process until the last year of his second four-year term in office.

He was understandably preoccupied, in foreign policy terms, by US military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Banging heads together

President Bush appeared distinctly reluctant to "bang heads together" to break the deadlock between Israelis and Palestinians.

Whereas Secretary Rice occasionally criticised both the Israelis and Palestinians for breaching the terms of the Annapolis process, some of President Bush's critics accused him of failing to do anything about continued construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, which are illegal under international law.

Having said all that, the Annapolis process, the work of the Quartet and the efforts of Condoleezza Rice have not been entirely in vain.

Expecting concrete results within a year was widely seen from the beginning as over-ambitious.

The process will also continue with a Spring meeting in Moscow. That's an important next step, given the current fragility of both internal Israeli and Palestinian politics.

Tony Blair and Condoleezza Rice
Tony Blair says the Mid East should be an 'urgent priority'

As they briefed Secretary Rice for the last time in Sharm el-Sheikh, Palestinian and Israeli representatives reaffirmed their commitment to continue negotiations.

Israel's Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said her country still supports the goal of existing alongside a sovereign Palestinian State.

Both sides say they want a comprehensive agreement, not something that is merely temporary and cosmetic, but Ms Livni went on to paint a remarkably positive picture.

"More than 10 teams are working on all the subjects required to solve the conflict," said the woman who is still hopeful of becoming Israel's next prime minister.

"We have agreed on the structure of the agreement, paragraphs are already drafted and we're working on maps."

Palestinian leaders don't recognise or admit to such detailed developments.

They accuse Israel of undermining any progress made so far by continuing to build its illegal settlements and restrict the movement of Palestinians in the West Bank.

The "big" issues like the future status of Jerusalem, the exact definition of the border between the two states and whether Palestinian refugees will be allowed the right of return are also still nowhere near being resolved.

There are still many things that could delay and even destroy the fragile process as it heads into a New Year: Will the Gaza ceasefire hold? Can the rival Palestinian factions even agree to talk to each other? If Likud's Binyamin Netanyahu becomes Israel's next prime minister, will he withdraw from the idea of a two-state solution altogether? What happens to Mahmoud Abbas when his term as President of the Palestinian Authority ends in January?

Signs in Israel calling for Barack Obama to 'make peace'
Expectations are high in the Mid East that Barack Obama will 'make peace'
Perhaps the most intriguing question of all is what will the next US president do?

America is still the most important player in the Middle East and on a visit here, before his election victory, Barack Obama promised to get involved from "the start".

If he does, notwithstanding America's other pressing concerns overseas, that will be in marked contrast to the approach of his predecessor.

Like every other American leader before him, Obama will be undoubtedly be "a friend to Israel" but will he be the one to "bang heads together", to take risks in the elusive pursuit of peace?

Tony Blair, the Quartet's Special Envoy to the region, said it was important that the incoming Obama administration "grips this issue from day one" and makes the Middle East an "urgent priority".

Mr Blair said that, for the new president, there is not only a great obligation but a great opportunity.

As Barack Obama and his foreign policy advisers wrestle with how to take on that obligation and opportunity, the woman who for the last year has dedicated much of her time and energy to the ultimately fruitless pursuit of peace, quietly exits the stage.

"You won't hear any more from me!", said Condi Rice, barely able to conceal her delight as the weight was lifted from her shoulders, as she said farewell to the Middle East and to the peace process.

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