On the Plane

Rice's Delicate Choice of Words

ASWAN, Egypt, March 24 -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived here this afternoon for talks with Arab leaders on the first leg of a Middle East trip to lay out a "mechanism" for peace.

What does that mean? That was the word Rice used in a briefing for reporters before she left Washington, but after take-off State Department officials wandered back to the press section of the plane to suggest that wasn't the best term. The word "approach" was suggested, to be used this way: Rice is setting an approach to a political horizon.

That certainly makes it clearer.

Welcome to world of diplomacy. Words have consequences and meaning, especially in the Middle East, where many words have become encrusted with deep significance.

Israeli officials, for instance, were upset that Rice recently referred to the "right of return" for Palestinians. That's a Palestinian phrase meaning they want the right to return to homes left behind a half-century ago when Israel declared it was a state. Israelis think Palestinians need to live in a Palestinian state, and thus refer to the "Palestinian refugee issue." Were Rice's words a slip of the tongue or deliberate? (I haven't had a chance to ask her yet.)

The challenge for diplomats is to come up with a fresh and descriptive phrase that has positive meaning -- but nothing negative. This weekend, Rice will shuttle back and forth between Palestinian and Israeli officials, seeking to set up a parallel set of understandings that would guide future peace talks. Israelis and Palestinians have so many different objectives -- and different ways to express those goals -- that Rice believes they first need to agree what they are talking about.

One Rice aide suggested that this was akin to double slalom skiing -- but that also has a certain "downhill" image that makes it a poor sell for a diplomatic catchphrase.

Here's how Rice tried to describe what she was doing when she met with reporters on Friday:

"What would make this trip a success for me is if I can establish that we have now a common approach to moving forward on developing, articulating a political horizon. And by common approach, I mean that I can in parallel talk about the same issues, establishing this mechanism. And by mechanism, I really mean a set of elements, a set of questions that we're going to ask and explore."

After Rice spoke, a reporter replied: "I still don't understand, I personally, what you're talking about."

Rice said she hoped to provide more clarity on Monday, at the end of her trip. "Hopefully, I'll be able to give you a little bit better idea of whether we've established that mechanism, but that's really what I'd like to do," she said.

Rice brought along her chief speechwriter, Christian D. Brose, which is a strong hint that the phrasing will be much more refined by Monday.

--Glenn Kessler

By washingtonpost.com Editors |  March 24, 2007; 11:37 AM ET  | Trip:  Rice in Middle East, March 2007
Previous: Rice Heading Back to the Middle East | Next: In Sunday's Post

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First of all, the State Department is part of any political solution to conflicts in the Middle East. This is the philosophy of this State Department and others, therefore common ground to bridge the issue of how to create the Palestinian state with the agreement and support from Israel is the delicate wire upon which Secretary Rice must walk to achieve the political solution.
Mechanism, or first steps or common ground: whatever words are spoken it will be the physical results upon which the media will give the thumbs up or down.
One lasting statement from Rice is:
"you can not have one foot in politics and one foot in terrorism."
This is a realistic and truthful statement, forcing Hamas and Hezbollah to figure out if they want to be part of creating solutions for their people in their nations or not.
No one should expect Condi to snap her finger and all turmoil will cease. That is too simplistic for any worthwhile solution to the Middle East conflicts.
Whatever happened the Peace Accords signed back in the Carter Years? Blow off those dusty papers and we will see how much consequence are in those words from the 1970's or is that just ancient history?

Posted by: Crystal Dueker | March 24, 2007 3:25 PM

Anyone who is lying always chooses their words carefully. Tell me one thing this hypocritical woman has done that has been a success during her term in office. Another perfect Republican choice from a chickenhawk White House--a woman so interested in being close to power that she turns her back on principle. Condi, you shame yourself.

Posted by: mikeasr | March 24, 2007 5:13 PM

Ah, so we have another "On the Plane" blog. I was reading this and found it more informative than the previous "OTP." That got me thinking "Someone has taught Baker that a blog is supposed to be about more than the trivialities of a reporter's field trip." Then I got to the end and found it was authored by Kessler. That explains a lot! I knew the dance of diplomacy centres on wordly nuance, but I never realised to what extent before Kessler's explanation. I agree with the reporter who could find no discernable meaning in the obtuse linguistic constructions that dribbled off Rice's tongue. It's like the jargon of education bureaucrats, a mass of marshmallow fluff that might mean something to THEM but narcotises the brain of anyone not steeped in the specialty.

Keep up the good work, Kessler! A blog should allow you to expand on what you're covering in ways that enrich the reader, but which might not make it pass the strictures of what's "journalstically responsible" to put in an official story. But for all I know, you hate doing this stuff because it doesn't get you paid anything more for having to do work in addition to the 15 column inches of your standard story.

Posted by: Bukko in Australia | March 24, 2007 6:05 PM

"...establish that we have now a common approach to moving forward."
MOVING FORWARD!! The situation is up against the wall of limit!

Posted by: xxx | March 24, 2007 6:58 PM

It is so disheartening to hear what is basically garbage being used to inform those on the plane who have to report this mission. The US will never resolve the Israel-Palestine dispute because it is not a honest broker, and cannot be as long as domestic political considerations in the US(AIPAC) matter. The Israelis and Palestinians are the only ones who can settle their dispute. The financial support given to the parties by the US is so lop sided that neither party has any incentive to take the US seriously.

Posted by: Alan | March 25, 2007 8:10 AM

"...the obtuse linguistic constructions that dribbled off Rice's tongue."

Beautifully - and accurately - put, Bukko. When I read ""What would make this trip a success for me is if I can establish..." etc etc, I thought WTF??? WHAT DOES ALL THIS GIBBERISH MEAN??? Ever wonder why we always start at Page 1 re the Israelis and Palestinians? Because we never stay committed to brokering a peace. As soon as there is something we don't like said, we back away and focus on something else. Foreign policy, a working peace is hammered out step by step, especially with adversaries such as Israel and Palestine. Sometimes it seems like our government suffers from institution-wide ADD.

As for Rice, IMHO, she's a total waste as Sec of State.

Posted by: reader | March 25, 2007 10:47 AM

"....a Palestinian phrase meaning they want the right to return to homes left behind a half-century ago when Israel declared it was a state."

LEFT Behind? Palestinians were expeled from their homes under force. Have you see the remains of the productive fertile village of Iqrit?

Or the new theme park covering the one time village of Tantura, where a horrible massacre of Palestinians occurred? The destroyed Palestinian villages of Biriyya or Malkiyya?

Sure, the "left" their villages and homes to live in camps for the last 50 years.

Posted by: Anonymous | March 25, 2007 5:14 PM

"....a Palestinian phrase meaning they want the right to return to homes left behind a half-century ago when Israel declared it was a state."

LEFT Behind? Palestinians were expeled from their homes under force. Have you see the remains of the productive fertile village of Iqrit?

Or the new theme park covering the one time village of Tantura, where a horrible massacre of Palestinians occurred? The destroyed Palestinian villages of Biriyya or Malkiyya?

Sure, Palistinians "left" their villages and homes to live in camps for the last 50 years.

Posted by: Rhatso | March 25, 2007 5:15 PM

The Orlando Sentinel editoral has an excerpt on the AP for March 28, 2007:

After an on-again, off-again approach throughout much of his presidency, George W Bush finally seems to be giving the Mideast peace process the sustained, high-level attention it deserves. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has met with leaders in the region four times in the past four months..........but it would be irresponsible and immoral for the United States to resume direct aid to the new government until both its partners accept Israel and reject terrorism.

This is from the Washington Post Editorial Roundup, today, March 28.

To me, I think the Democrats are shaking in their boots that Condi Rice might be chosen to replace Cheney as VP. Even Larry Sabato has stated if this happens, the entire GOP field will be shaken up.

I might add that if this happens, the ENTIRE 2008 process is upside down. Obama and Hillary can not survive with an equally qualified African-American woman on the Republican side in the Oval Office race.

Posted by: Debbie Watson | March 29, 2007 1:22 PM

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