Rice has narrow room for Mideast manoeuvre

news51.jpgWASHINGTON — US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has only narrow room for diplomatic manoeuvre on her Middle East crisis tour if she wants to avoid destabilising the moderate Arab states Washington is counting on to transform the region, analysts said.

President George W. Bush’s administration has seen a more limited role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in recent years while devoting its main energies to promoting regional democracy, seeing it as the best countermeasure to terrorism.

Viewing both the Hizbollah in Lebanon and the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip as “terrorist” movements, Washington has so far resisted calls from some of its Western and Arab allies to press Israel into agreeing to an immediate ceasefire.

Washington has fully supported Israel’s joint offensives in Lebanon and Gaza sparked by the capture of three Israeli soldiers by Hamas and Hizbollah, though they weaken moderate Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

In another hint of the difficulties Rice may encounter, the State Department has so far failed to specify the dates or precise itinerary of her travels, saying only that she intends to go “as early as next week”.

The State Department said more broadly that Rice’s visit comes at “an important moment in the region”.

“We are seeing the end of an old order in the Middle East and the beginnings and birth of a new kind of order in the Middle East that is based on democracy, that is based on greater personal freedoms,” spokesman Sean McCormack said Thursday.

He said Rice wanted to “address the tactical situation, but also try to address the root causes and bring about a strategic change in those particular situations.” However, Washington maintains no diplomatic relations with the two states that are seen most supportive of both Hizbollah and Hamas, Iran and Syria, which the US regards as “state sponsors of terrorism”.

Rice is thus reduced to the role of counting on the assistance of regional Arab allies to put pressure on Tehran and Damascus, seen in Washington as fomenting the current violence.

But Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia — Washington’s main Arab friends — have already expressed a split from the US view, calling publicly on Israel to observe an immediate ceasefire.

Siniora told AFP he believed “the United States is giving Israel the opportunity to continue its aggression.” Some top Middle Eastern analysts in the United States have issued sharp barbs at Washington’s approach over recent days.

“The US has the most to lose if things get out of hand,” Muqtedar Khan of the conservative Brookings Institution wrote in The Chicago Tribune.

“Its key interests in the region — oil, Israel, liberalism — are all in jeopardy,” he said.

Scott Lasensky of the United States Institute of Peace added: “The US has a tremendous interest in trying to bring the fighting to an end as soon as possible.

“The longer the fighting goes on, the worse the position of the moderates all over the region is and also the greater Iran’s influence expands,” he told AFP.

Meanwhile, Charles Kupchan and Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations said the Lebanese crisis underscored a broader failure of US policy in the Middle East.

“Washington’s ideological hubris and practical incompetence has succeeded only in setting the region ablaze, awakening extremism and militant voices,” they wrote in the International Herald Tribune.

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