Grand Illusions

With Rumsfeld and Powell gone, and Cheney’s power diminished, this is Condoleezza Rice’s moment. Can she salvage America’s standing in the Middle East—and defuse the threat of a nuclear Iran? Behind the curtain in Washington and Jerusalem with the secretary of state

The David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem, where Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to spend three nights, is part of a series of new developments in what, until 1967, was a no-man’s land separating Israeli West Jerusalem and Jordanian East Jerusalem. Built of Jerusalem stone, in a style that might be called “Crusader modern,” the hotel was designed by the Israeli architect Moshe Safdie, who is also responsible for the Mamilla-Alrov residential complex going up across the street, which promises “Soho-style lofts in Jerusalem stone with views of the Old City and New York–style interiors.” Together, the two developments form a stone umbilical cord connecting West Jerusalem to the disputed heart of the Old City.

In the basement of the hotel, yellow “cable path” tape on the floor marks the windowless room that has been wired for the traveling press. On the tables are little white signs done up with custom fonts for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, Reuters, Bloomberg News, and CBS. CNN gets two places. Each seat has a new phone with a paper wrapper to hold the receiver in place, like the band on a freshly sanitized toilet. At the front of the room is a briefing podium. A worker from the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv arrives to survey the scene.

“It looks like crap,” he says, with satisfaction.

I find a copy of Friday’s State Department Rapid Response sheet lying on the ground. “Message: Americans do not want to see Palestinians killing Palestinians. Palestinians should be living in peace among themselves and with Israel,” the document instructs, quoting Rice. “We will wait until the government is formed and then we’ll make a decision about how to deal with that government.”

I wander back upstairs and park myself outside the entrance to the hotel garage, where I am stopped by a young Russian-born man in a gray suit with a black-and-red pin on his lapel that identifies him as a member of Shabak, the Israeli internal-security service.

“Why don’t you wait with all the other reporters in front of the hotel?” he asks. When I tell him I want to see the security preparations, he has me escorted to my room. From the window, I watch the scene below. A man walks by carrying two sniper rifles in long black soft-sided cases. Plainclothes security teams move up and down the other side of the street. Three men stop in front of the Mamilla-Alrov construction site, open the gate, and spend the next half hour examining each floor of the new building. A plainclothes security agent with a flashlight beats the tall grass between the sidewalk and the street with a thin collapsible rod, looking for wires or a glint of metal.

At 7:55 p.m. a police motorcycle pulls up, followed by a police car, and then by Secretary Rice’s motorcade, a series of perfectly spaced SUVs that click into the garage one by one, like beads on a string—black, black, silver, black, black, silver, black, black, silver, white. For the next three days, the secretary of state will not venture out of the hotel except when her motorcade takes her to meet with President Abbas in Ramallah, or Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, in Jerusalem.

I join the reporters clustered downstairs and wait for the secretary to emerge with Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister. After a brief appearance in front of the cameras, the two women will enjoy a private dinner in Rice’s suite. Mindy Sofen, the diminutive State Department flack, lays down the rules: “Guys, we may or may not get a question.”

“Glenn’s got it,” says David Millikin, the high-strung virtuoso of the Agence France-Presse.

“Glenn’s been trying to ask this question for three days,” adds Janine Zacharia of Bloomberg News.

Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post, a youthful-looking reporter in an open-necked blue-striped shirt, is Rice’s favorite. Week after week, Kessler asks the best questions, and the most questions, at the secretary’s press conferences. He is also completely ignorant of popular culture and baffled by sports metaphors, which the secretary uses often.

At the beginning of each trip, he tells me, the reporters generally decide on two questions that they will try to get Rice to answer. “On this trip, it has to do with what is she trying to do with this process,” he explains. “Is this really the beginning of a new U.S. initiative in the Middle East? Is it for show? How can she surmount the problems created by the Palestinian unity government?”

Earlier in the day, Rice made a surprise visit to Baghdad. Standing behind the rope line, the three wire-service reporters who made it onto her plane are talking about how depressing the Green Zone is.

“It looks terrible,” one says.

“There’s garbage piled up everywhere,” another says.

“Once, they came out at a press conference in Baghdad and sprayed us with air freshener,” Zacharia says, looking around the room. “We deserved it, too.”

A beeper goes off, signaling that the secretary is on her way. The room falls silent for a beat and a half, and then the whispering starts again. Rice appears, followed by a tall middle-aged woman, her blond hair in a shoulder-length bob. Now that Ariel Sharon is gone, Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister, is the most popular politician in Israel. A former Mossad agent, she is bashful in public and has the bad posture of a tall girl who had to pretend to be shorter than she was in order to get dates. The close relationship between the two women was mocked in a skit last year on the Israeli television show Eretz Nehederet (A Wonderful Country), the Israeli equivalent of Saturday Night Live, which showed Livni trailing Rice around like a lost puppy and saying “yes” to whatever the secretary proposed.

Taking her place in front of the microphone, Rice stands up straight, with her shoulders even and her back slightly arched. She is dressed in a striped jacket and pants, and is wearing flats. She looks tired from her afternoon in Baghdad.

“It only seems right that you have to recognize the right of your partner to exist,” she says somewhat plaintively, explaining her demand that the Hamas-led government recognize Israel before negotiations can proceed. Her purpose here will be “exploring, probing the political horizon.” She speaks for less than two minutes, then turns away and starts walking toward the door, with Livni by her side.

The sound of clattering plastic laptop keys fills the pressroom like rain on a Hefty bag. The seals on the telephones have been broken, and the reporters are previewing their stories by phone with the desk back home.

“She arrived in Israel and had dinner with the foreign minister, Tzipi Livni,” Millikin says.

“They’re holding page one for this,” Helene Cooper of The New York Times tells Kessler.

Kessler turns his head to the side. “Really?” he asks. His other blind spot is his inability to tell when he is being teased.

“No. They said 200 words,” Cooper says sadly.

Presented by

David Samuels’s “In a Ruined Country,” a profile of Yasir Arafat, appeared in September 2005.

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