No Name, and Not Much to Say Either
JERUSALEM -- This evening, your traveling press corps received a visit from one of the most popular and ubiquitous figures in American diplomacy: Senior State Department Official.
Around 9:30 p.m. local time, a seemingly friendly and affable person, wearing blue jeans and looking tired, plopped himself into an armchair in front of a small group of reporters in the basement of the hotel where we are staying. He then spent about a half-hour deflecting a host of questions aimed at dislodging any scrap of detail about Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's day of meetings with Israeli politicians and the Palestinian prime minister.
"We mostly just listened -- so I have little to say," said the senior State Department official, setting the tone right off the bat.
He said it was "premature" to assess the progress of the Palestinian and Israeli groups that are trying to hammer out a joint document that might be presented at a proposed Middle East peace conference later this year.
He also made clear that he's not saying when that conference might be held or even whether it would take place in Annapolis, as has been widely reported by many newspapers. "I have never said where it's going to be," he pointed out helpfully.
Channeling his boss, the senior State Department official found a new way to make a no-comment about the Israeli bombing raid on Syria last month, though his careful answer seemed to suggest the issue may have come up today. Asked whether North Korea's possible involvement in a purported Syrian nuclear program was discussed, he thought for a moment and replied: "I don't want to answer that particular question, but you should not read into that a yes or a no."
He did, however, display a wry sense of humor -- well, at least for a professional diplomat. When asked a question about Hamas, he made plain that he was not too interested in the thinking of the group running things in the Gaza part of the Palestinian territories. "They have already given us their views on this process. They don't expect it to result in a thing," he said. "It's a fairly simple party line, and we heard it. You can convey our gratitude for their optimism."
The whole exercise, conducted under standard State Department rules of anonymity that supposedly encourage more candor from senior officials, made this interloper wonder why the veteran diplomatic reporters on this trip rushed from their dinners to attend. At this point, American officials hoping to prod along a Mideast peace project that has been motionless for much of the Bush administration plainly see no purpose in laying out details of private talks that may not come to fruition.
Still, it would be exaggerating to call this a pointless briefing. I thought the official made a couple of points that, while not necessarily earth-shattering, offered some important clues as to where we are in this fledgling new peace initiative.
"These conversations are in their infancy," this official said, clearly suggesting that any hopes for a quick breakthrough are ill-considered. Asked whether he was optimistic or pessimistic, he replied, "totally realistic -- I am Mr. Realism."
But, this official said, a once-chilly relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas seems to be transforming, which perhaps offers a sign of hope. "They are in a position where there's a lot more confidence," he said.
Finally, Mr. Senior State Department Official seemed to make clear that the Middle East peace project will be one of the last major endeavors of the Bush administration before it closes up shop in January 2009. This is Rice's seventh trip to the region this year, and she is staying four days and meeting with a wider range of Israelis, Palestinians and others than she normally does, he said. Though he would surely disagree with this assessment, the senior State official seemed to be tactitly accepting some of the criticism that the administration has not been sufficiently invested in the issue.
"I do think this is going to require a lot of hands-on American diplomacy," he said. "I think these are really tough issues. Some of the regional work cannot be done by the Israelis and the Palestinians alone." He said Rice is making "a big investment of diplomatic capital" in the issue.
Then, seeming to acknowledge he was disappointing his tough audience tonight, he added, "I think that's what it takes. I am honestly sorry, folks, I can't give you a deliverable every single day of every single trip. It doesn't work that way."
-- Michael Abramowitz
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