Will Rices trip create a climate of trust

Although Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tried to work her diplomatic magic on center stage this week, more significant progress toward peace may be happening behind the scenes — in secret meetings between the Israeli and Palestinian foreign ministers.

A day before Rice’s arrival, strategic government leaks to the Israeli media disclosed that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmad Qureia have held more than 50 unpublicized talks since the Annapolis peace parley in November 2007. All the core issues, including Jerusalem, have been on the table.

Officials in the know say negotiations this intense haven’t been held since the initial Oslo talks in the early 1990s.

Like the Oslo talks, the Livni-Qureia meetings have been shrouded in secrecy. Both apparently agreed early on to steer clear of the cameras and not to issue progress reports.

Nothing of substance has been leaked to the media. Some reports have said the meetings include maps, the occasional participation of experts and follow-ups by professionals on both sides.

The aim is to produce a detailed Israeli-Palestinian agreement to be approved by the United Nations by the end of the year and be implemented as soon as conditions allow.

For now it is clear to all the parties that as long as Hamas remains in control of the Gaza Strip, and until the Palestinian Authority demonstrates it can stop attacks against Israel, the agreement will remain on the shelf.

The big unknown is how much genuine progress, if any, Livni and Qureia have been able to make.

Clearly, as Rice said, the better the situation on the ground, the more concessions the parties will feel ready to make on the big issues.

That’s why Rice went to Israel and the West Bank for the second time in a month: to secure concessions and move things forward.

She secured a long list of Israeli commitments designed to improve Palestinian living conditions and indicated that the United States would make sure Israel carried them out.

The commitments include:

• Dismantling 50 roadblocks around the West Bank cities of Jenin, Tulkarm, Kalkilya and Ramallah.

• Streamlining operations at the remaining 500 or so Israeli roadblocks in the West Bank.

• Dismantling a permanent checkpoint near Jericho, giving Palestinians direct access to the Dead Sea.

• Allowing the construction of 5,000 to 8,000 new Palestinian homes in some 25 villages in the Ramallah area, a project that has been on hold for more than a year.

• Connecting Palestinian villages without electricity to the Israeli power grid.

• Allowing another 5,000 Palestinian workers to work in Israel, bringing the total number permitted to do so to 23,500.

Israel’s goal is not only to impress the Americans but to alleviate growing Palestinian restiveness. Some observers warn that failure to make such changes on the ground could prompt a third intifada.

Despite Israel’s promises, Palestinian leaders remained skeptical.

“I will believe it when I see it,” declared Saeb Erakat, one of the chief Palestinian negotiators.

Israeli media are skeptical as well. A cartoon in Israel’s daily Yediot Achronot showed Rice riding a tortoise — with the face of Defense Minister Ehud Barak — saying to President Bush on the phone, “Boss, we are making fantastic progress.”

Whether or not the Israeli moves constitute significant progress, Rice is determined to see that the measures are carried out “very, very soon.”