The stakes could not be higher on Rice's week-long trip to Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Germany and Britain. She is trying to knit together her vision of a "new Middle East" from the turmoil and conflict spawned in part by the Iraq war and the rising influence of radical Islamic groups, such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Iran has emerged as a more powerful regional power partly because of U.S. missteps in Iraq. Administration officials say the rise of Iran has to some extent given such historic antagonists as Israel and Saudi Arabia common strategic interests.
Rice has said she sees the turmoil as offering opportunity. "This is a different Middle East," she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday. "This Middle East is a Middle East in which there really is a new alignment of forces," pitting "reformers and responsible leaders" in Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the Palestinian territories against "extremists of every sect and ethnicity who use violence to spread chaos, to undermine democratic governments and to impose agendas of hatred and intolerance."
The glue that is supposed to help link the positive forces is a sustained personal effort by Rice to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, administration officials and diplomats said. Bush has called repeatedly for a "two-state solution" to the conflict, but Arabs and outside analysts have complained that in the past six years the administration has frequently disengaged when the obstacles seemed too great.
Philip D. Zelikow, until earlier this month Rice's counselor at the State Department, said the new effort has "three big pillars," including a comprehensive effort in the Middle East to win support for the Iraqi government and rallying the region to stand up to the extremism of Iran and al-Qaeda.
"Undergirding the rest is an intensified effort on the next phase of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process," Zelikow said, adding that it would include winning greater public backing for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas from Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia.
U.S. officials quietly encouraged Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently to say something positive about a 2002 Saudi peace plan that included recognition of Israel as a way of breaking the ice between the Jewish state and the kingdom with Islam's holiest sites. Olmert's predecessor, Ariel Sharon, had shunned the Saudi plan.
In recent months, Rice has initiated a new forum known as the "GCC plus two," which brings together the six nations in the Gulf Cooperation Council with Egypt and Jordan. Arab sources say the participants have agreed to the meetings with great reluctance, believing they could not afford to cross Rice. Another meeting is scheduled for Rice's stop in Kuwait.
A senior administration official acknowledged yesterday there is concern that the forum will be seen as an anti-Iranian alliance but said it has proved to be "quite productive for consultations."
Rice's aides have tried to lower expectations for this round of diplomacy, saying she was mainly hoping to listen to ideas. The official yesterday denied a report in the upcoming issue of Time magazine that Rice had joined with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in a bid to put aside a previous peace plan known as the "road map" and leap right to final-status talks to bolster Abbas. An Israeli official also denied the report.
Still, diplomats who have met with Rice say they have been impressed with her sense of personal commitment to trying to make a breakthrough this year.
Dennis Ross, a former Middle East envoy who has known Rice since they were both young Soviet specialists in Northern California, said: "I think that Condi is seriously contemplating what she can do. I am not saying she will do it. There is a big difference between contemplating something and doing it."
Indeed, analysts and administration officials acknowledged that the moment is not auspicious for any sort of breakthrough. Abbas is battling against Hamas, which won legislative elections a year ago and refuses to renounce its goal of eliminating Israel. Abbas has suggested he will call elections to end the political crisis, but there is no guarantee that he will win. Meanwhile, Olmert has low approval ratings because of public disapproval of his handling of last summer's war with Hezbollah.
"The moon, the sun and stars are not in auspicious alignment," said Aaron David Miller, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and longtime peace negotiator through successive administrations. "With due respect to anyone who wants to deal with this, it has 'loser' written all over it."