Stay a while longer, Condi

Dear Secretary of State Rice:

This is a request that you cease visiting us for a mere day or two every few months, usually a week or so after a major crisis. Instead, as we enter the countdown to disengagement, you should stay a while, for weeks at a time. The pace and importance of events are too critical for you not to be here.

Let me note from the outset of this open letter that this is not an appeal for you to become an instant peacemaker. Only Israelis and Palestinians can make peace between themselves. Indeed, all the breakthroughs to Israel-Arab peace–Sadat’s visit in 1977, Oslo, peace with Jordan–were made bilaterally, secretly, and behind the backs of an unenthusiastic US administration. Based, at least, on this incremental model, I offer neither expectations nor encouragement for a US-initiated and monitored peace process in the near future.

But close and high-level American mediating of Israel-Arab relations at times of crisis or opportunity are another matter. Two of your illustrious predecessors in Republican administrations did it brilliantly: Henry Kissinger spent months here in 1974-5 putting together ceasefire and separation of forces agreements. One of them, with Syria, has lasted to this day. The other, with Egypt, paved the way for peace. James Baker shuttled back and forth for weeks in 1990 and 1991, first to build a war coalition, then to organize the Madrid Conference.

Kissinger and Baker were, first and foremost, serving American interests as defined by their bosses, Presidents Nixon and George H.W. Bush. Your boss, President George W. Bush, keeps telling us that disengagement, the roadmap, and a viable two-state solution are a prime American interest. But when his rhetoric is backed up at critical junctures by no more than your occasional one- or two-day visits, many of us are not convinced that this is indeed a vital issue for the US.

What characterized the successful Kissinger and Baker mediating efforts was the recognition, on the part of Arab and Israeli leaders, that they spoke directly for the president of the United States; that they couldn’t be maneuvered, manipulated or ignored without incurring the wrath of the president. In Kissinger’s case this took place during an era when the US was not the sole superpower, and it took a degree of American audacity to try to capitalize on critical events the way he did. You, too, enjoy the status of direct and empowered emissary of your president. And disengagement is an equally critical event. This is why leaders like Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas cannot afford to ignore your requests the way they might dare to do with, say, General William Ward, your military representative, or James Wolfensohn, the quartet’s economic representative, even though both are men of great skill and integrity.

There is plenty of work for you here in the coming weeks, when the weather in Jerusalem and Ramallah is undoubtedly more pleasant than in Washington. First, when the next major crisis threatens to derail disengagement, you’ll be on the spot to deal with it. Second, both Abbas and Sharon need your hands-on support. Third, so many aspects of disengagement are not yet settled.

This is where you can back up your emissaries with the carrots and sticks that only you can brandish. Pressure Abbas to stand fast against Hamas and consolidate his security establishment. If he really does need more weapons and ammunition, make sure Sharon permits their immediate supply. Persuade Abbas to accept payment for removing the rubble from the settlements. See what other resources the PA needs in order to make good on its plan to take over the lands vacated by Israel in Gaza and shunt Hamas aside, and deliver them. Make sure Israel agrees now to a serious, stable and permanent safe passage project, both for the short and the long terms, because this is the first and perhaps most important building block for the viable Palestinian state President Bush keeps talking about. Bang on the table the way Sharon does and demand to see work in progress while you’re here.

When you need a break from Israelis and Palestinians, as undoubtedly you will, go to Egypt to help wrap up Cairo’s prolonged negotiations with Israel over the Gaza-Sinai border, and perhaps to arrange for burial of that settlement rubble in Sinai. Your carrots and sticks will help here too. Then go to Damascus: President Asad complains that he doesn’t know what you want from him. This would be a good opportunity to demand in no uncertain terms that he expel Hamas and Islamic Jihad from Syria as his contribution to a smooth transition in Gaza. Lebanon can also help by disarming Hizballah; your recent half-day visit there was commendable, but show the new government in Beirut you’re serious by coming back every week or two. American shuttle diplomacy worked well in the past; it can help now, too.

I know the US is busy with very high priority Middle East issues in Iraq and Iran. We have an interest in your success there. But if, as another of your emissaries, David Welch, recently said, "the disengagement plan is a central feature of America’s foreign policy in this region," then show us how serious you and the president are by settling in here for the next few weeks.