Rice: Mideast peace prospects worsened under Obama

November 1, 2011 - 6:35 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — Prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace are far worse today than when she left office, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday, and she partly blames the Obama administration's tough line against Israeli settlement-building for spoiling chances for new talks.

"When you look at where we are now, we're a long, long way back from where we were," Rice said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Rice said she had hoped that the Obama administration could revive stalled peace talks quickly when it took office in 2009, but she said she was disappointed by the new administration's handling of the delicate issue of new Israeli housing construction in the West Bank.

"I do think focusing on settlements in that particular way was a mistake," Rice said. "The parties then were able to have a reason not to sit down."

The gulf has only widened, Rice said, "and they're running out of time." She did not sound optimistic for a settlement soon, or even for new talks.

"When they're not talking, they're sliding backward," Rice said.

A detailed account of negotiations she helped broker in 2008 is a highlight of Rice's new memoir of her time in Washington. Published Tuesday, "No Higher Honor" concedes some missteps by the Bush administration on several fronts but strongly defends former President George W. Bush's efforts toward Mideast peace, and Rice's own.

"It's one of the best deals I think you're going to see," Rice said of the deal on the table during the waning months of the Bush administration. The deal died when the Palestinians rejected it weeks before Bush left office, she wrote, but she suggested her successors might have been able to use the momentum from those negotiations to keep talks alive.

Rice said she left a record of the intensive negotiations she led in 2008 for the new Obama administration in hopes that a new team of negotiators could pick up where the Israelis and Palestinians had left off.

The U.S. long has opposed new settlements but largely looked the other way at some homebuilding, such as expansion of selected neighborhoods. Rice herself had called settlement building unhelpful and was infuriated when Israel appeared to undercut her by announcing new building licenses hard on the heels of some of her diplomatic visits.

But new Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and her Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, took a much harder line in the spring of 2009, demanding a full freeze on any building.

Obama "wants to see a stop to settlements," including the expansion of existing developments, Clinton said in May of that year.

With Israelis suspicious of Obama even before he assumed office, the settlement position further unnerved them. The Palestinians, initially encouraged, became disillusioned when the U.S. was unable to persuade Israel to freeze settlement construction.

Rice's account confirms then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's claim that he had laid out a comprehensive proposal for peace during secret meetings with Rice and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Rice said Abbas ultimately rejected the proposal, for which she said she does not blame him. The Palestinians deny that Abbas did so.

In the book, Rice recounts a private dinner with Olmert in May 2008 when she said he presented the plan.

It contained ways to address the most difficult issues preventing Israel and the Palestinians from agreeing on terms for a separate Palestinian state, she wrote. Olmert proposed a system for shared jurisdiction of Jerusalem and return of a limited number of Palestinians who left their homes in what is now Israel when the Jewish state was created in 1948, Rice wrote.

Olmert also would end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and hand over about 94 percent of the territory to the Palestinians for the bulk of their state, she wrote.

"Concentrate, concentrate," Rice describes herself as thinking as Olmert spoke. "This is unbelievable."