This coming Monday Secretary Rice will bring together the Israeli and Palestinian leaders in a trilateral summit. Her regional visit, that culminates with this summit, will mark Rice's fifth trip to the Middle East in just over six months. She has personally overseen the summit preparations, convened her Quartet partners (the EU, Russia, and UN Secretary-General) in Washington, and called for a political horizon between Israeli's and Palestinians.
It seems that Secretary Rice, especially with her new Deputy Negroponte in place, has finally appointed a Mideast Peace Envoy - herself. But to succeed, Peace Envoy Rice will have to challenge much of the hesitation, ideological baggage, and aversion to heavy diplomatic lifting that has so far plagued Secretary Rice. First she will need a plan.
A poignant anniversary that passed unnoticed last month might offer a clue. It was exactly six years ago in Taba, Egypt, that Israeli and Palestinian officials last sat across a negotiating table to discuss the final status political issues that divide them. In their joint closing statement at Taba, the negotiators declared that "they have never been closer to reaching an agreement." In the intervening six years everything has been tried - unrelenting military confrontation, terror and reoccupation, unilateral Israeli withdrawal, Palestinian elections, and plenty of status quo - except one thing: restarting those political negotiations.
Of course the mere passage of time and exhausting of alternatives do not alone merit a desperate lunge back to peace talks. A more compelling case for focusing efforts on achieving a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace rests on three assumptions. First; the conflict management and interim arrangements approach is structurally flawed. Absent a finality of outcome, it is prohibitively difficult to sustain piecemeal progress. It is time to acknowledge that issues of access and movement, settlements and checkpoints are vital, but unlikely to really change without addressing the political context. Second, it is now widely acknowledged that a viable two-state solution based on the 1967 lines offers the best way forward for Israelis and Palestinians alike. But time is against the two-state solution. Settlements expand and security contracts, hardening realities on the ground and belief in the hearts of both peoples', and further complicating the task of peacemakers. Third, particularly today, efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have become almost a prerequisite to reestablishing US credibility and capacity to build and lead alliances in the region. This conflict nourishes anti-American radicalism and feeds the mobilizing capacity of extremists. It is this argument that the Baker Hamilton Iraq Study Group made so persuasively in their Report and not the straw-man version that has Sunni and Shia singing Koom-bi-ya on Baghdad's Haifa Street in celebration of Israeli-Arab peace.
Peace Envoy Rice should embrace as her mission a return to Taba, to political negotiations. Secretary Rice will caution that the leaderships and publics on both sides are not ready for such a move. Peace Envoy Rice will have to reverse this equation. Both leaderships need to show progress and provide hope to stay alive politically. The Israeli center has shifted from territorialism towards pragmatism while the new Palestinian Unity Government provides the formula for a Palestinian negotiating partner that could be better placed to deliver on security. Secretary Rice will warn that this conflict has no solution, certainly not in the lifetime of this administration. Peace Envoy Rice will need to have studied and familiarized herself with the material - the previous negotiations, the Clinton parameters, the Geneva Initiative - all realistic and practical solutions that are within reach. Agreeing on the endgame can be combined with phasing its implementation. There is space too, for new creative input. A broader package for instance, that goes beyond the bilateral, and includes Arab state recognition of and relations with Israel (the Saudi initiative), aid, trade, and economic arrangements, and international oversight of security provisions. Such a package would make any agreement more marketable and acceptable to both publics.
When Secretary Rice expresses ideological objections to Palestinian President Abbas sharing power with Hamas, Peace Envoy Rice will have to push back hard. The Palestinian Unity Government should be primarily judged on its actions, not its words, and could confer broader legitimacy on any agreement reached by Abbas.
I was a member of that Israeli negotiating team at Taba six years ago, and unlike at Camp David, we came genuinely close to a deal. The crucial ingredient was that the Americans had submitted their parameters for permanent status (the Clinton plan), but the great miscalculation was in the timing - it had come too late. Prepare your detailed plan for an endgame Ms. Rice, think big, and don't wait too long before you present it.
Daniel Levy is a Senior Fellow at the New America and The Century Foundations and directs their respective Middle East Peace policy initiatives. He formerly worked as an adviser in Israeli PM Barak's office, as an official negotiator and as lead Israeli drafter of the informal Geneva Initiative peace plan.