As Condoleezza Rice was meeting Ehud Olmert this morning the Israeli housing ministry was awaiting responses to newspaper advertisements inviting bids for the construction of 44 homes in the largest Jewish settlement in the West Bank, in a violation of pledges by Israel to Washington to halt construction under the ‘road map‘.
The map charting a route to Palestinian statehood is in pretty poor shape. Palestinian militants continue to fire rockets from the Gaza Strip into Israel, breaking another set of ground rules for progress.
There is little optimism on either side surrounding today’s announcement that Ms Rice will host a trilateral meeting between her, Mr Olmert and the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas within the next month.
Palestinian suspicions have not been eased by the fact that Mr Olmert’s promise to Mr Abbas when they met in December to make life easier by relaxing security checkpoints in the West Bank appears to have been forgotten — although a new commercial goods-only crossing has been opened in the Jordan Valley.
Mr Abbas told Ms Rice that he rejected a proposal to establish a temporary Palestinian state within temporary borders, no doubt fearing that Israel’s security wall would become a de facto frontier if permanent status negotiations fail.
Israel, for its part, is closely monitoring the faction-fighting which threatens to boil over into a fully-fledged civil war between Mr Abbas’s Fatah movement and Hamas. The situation in Gaza and the West Bank is very tense and it would take little to ignite a confrontation between well-armed sides which would sweep away all prospect of getting the road map back on course.
Israel and the US want to build up support for Mr Abbas in the hope of marginalizing Hamas, whose electoral victory last year halted Western funding for the Palestinian territories because of its refusal to recognise the Jewish state.
It is possible that Ms Rice is proceeding on the basis that Mr Abbas will be prepared to drop his opposition to the temporary borders plan, thereby creating a ‘political horizon‘ for Palestinians, in return perhaps for a timetable on the final status agreement, including Jerusalem and refugees.
Progress on the Palestinian-Israeli track would ease US difficulties in the region over its Iraq strategy, but nobody is banking on success. It might just be the case that, by her frequent visits to Jerusalem and Ramallah, Ms Rice hopes her demonstration alone of a commitment to solving the impasse will suffice for now.