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

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The Palestinian Authority

The next morning, the daily summary of the Palestinian press compiled by the American Consulate General in Jerusalem does not make for cheery reading:

Leading with reports that President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Olmert have decided to boycott the Palestinian unity government if it does not meet the Quartet’s requirements, the Palestinian papers quoted Palestinian President Abbas telling assistant secretary David Welch the world must learn to coexist with the national unity government even if its program does not include recognition of Israel.

The Quartet, the diplomatic grouping of the United States, the UN, the EU, and Russia, is responsible for implementing the road map. Missing from this account is any mention of Rice’s visit, which has been overshadowed by a phone call from Bush to Olmert, who in the wake of the failed war in Lebanon is now the least-popular prime minister in Israel’s history. Olmert’s single-digit favorable ratings, combined with a raft of recent corruption charges against leading members of his government, make him an unlikely partner for any peace deal. According to Olmert, Bush promised that the diplomatic freeze would continue until Hamas recognized Israel.

After a meeting with Amir Peretz, the Israeli defense minister, who is widely blamed for the failure of the war in Lebanon, Rice is bundled off with her retinue and a string of reporters to Ramallah, where she has an appointment with Abbas. In a convoy of 15 four-by-fours with tinted windows and two vans full of reporters, we pass the Israeli settlement of Pisgat Zeev—a city of 40,000 people with concrete houses, large apartment blocks, and shopping malls—and cross the new “separation barrier” at a special checkpoint that allows cars with diplomatic plates to avoid the inconvenience of waiting in line for hours like the Palestinians. Soon we approach the Palestinian checkpoint, where the guns switch from M-16s to AK-47s. “All right, flip it,” the young security guard in the front seat tells the driver, who flips the sign on his dashboard from Hebrew to Arabic.

It is a wet, rainy day in Ramallah. Professional-looking soldiers in crisp uniforms with new weapons and black paratroop boots stand in pairs on every corner as the motorcade makes its way to the Muqata, the former British police station that became Yasir Arafat’s headquarters and is now the seat of the Palestinian Authority. The streets are empty. Surrounded by a large wall topped with barbed wire, the Muqata looks even worse than it did when I was last here two years ago, in the months after Arafat’s death. The simple glass pavilion that housed his body has been demolished, and his mausoleum stands unfinished.

Upstairs in Arafat’s old meeting room, Abbas and Rice sit side by side in off-white armchairs, a crappy coffee table and a Palestinian flag between them. Above Rice’s head are twinned portraits of Arafat and Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen. The dreary floor-length drapes are closed to keep out the light and discourage snipers. The coffee table has been dressed with a little American flag, and the requisite box of tissues.

The beige sofa to Abbas’s left hosts his top advisers: Yasir Abd Rabbo, who dresses like a British Marxist academic; Saeb Erekat, one of the lead Palestinian negotiators at Oslo and Camp David and a frequent guest on CNN; Mohammed Dahlan, the leader of the security forces in Gaza that are still loyal to Fatah; and Nabil Abu Rudeinah, Abbas’s spokesman, each of whom occupied the exact same position when Arafat was alive. So much for the American-led program of political reform. At the suggestion of the Americans, I am told, all of the Palestinians had their cell phones taken away before the meeting and were issued legal pads on which to take notes.

The secretary of state has been given two sofas for her advisers, one beige, and one an orange Creamsicle color. Perched on the arm of the beige sofa, which is closest to Rice, is Gamal Helal, the State Department’s Arabic- language senior diplomatic interpreter. On the couches are Karen Hughes, the undersecretary of state in charge of America’s public-relations effort in the Arab world; Sean McCormack, Rice’s press secretary; Jacob Walles, the American consul in Jerusalem; David Welch; and Elliott Abrams, who looks a bit out of his element.

Abrams wears the Wall Street lawyer’s uniform of a dark gray pin-striped suit, a blue-and-white striped shirt, and a blue tie. He sits with one foot propped on his knee, macho-style, and fiddles with his BlackBerry as Rice speaks to reporters. His e-mails have recently been the subject of a front-page story by Glenn Kessler in The Washington Post, headlined “Conservatives Assail North Korea Accord.” According to the story, Abrams “fired off e-mails expressing bewilderment over the agreement and demanding to know why North Korea would not have to first prove it had stopped sponsoring terrorism.”

The attention paid to Abrams’s e-mails is also a measure of the appetite for speculation as to whether Rice, or Cheney, is actually in charge of U.S. foreign policy. While the guessing game is fun, it illustrates that the Bush administration has been successful at keeping its secrets. No one thinks Cheney is as close to Bush as he was at the height of his power, during the first term. But it is also true that we are definitely in a Cheney moment. Then again, Rice is the president’s chief foreign-policy adviser; she represents the president directly and is much more influential than Colin Powell ever was. Of course, for all we know, Cheney and Rice play good cop/bad cop for reporters, and even for foreign leaders, and then laugh about it afterward on a secure phone. It is also possible that the president is firmly in charge of his own foreign policy. Stranger things have been revealed once government archives have finally been opened 25, or 35, or 50 years hence.

Wearing a mauve pantsuit and a pearl choker, Rice delivers her usual lines about probing the diplomatic horizon. Abbas expresses his admiration for the secretary of state. They sit facing a photo of the Old City of Jerusalem at night. The room next door is set up for lunch, with little French rolls and folded white napkins.

The hallways are lined with depressing abstract art, long Oriental runners, and men with guns. I sit in the cold briefing room downstairs with the other reporters, one of whom is phoning in his story. “She thanked him for his personal commitment,” he says. “That’s it.” Then he hangs up.

The room we are in, with a camera-ready blue backdrop, professional briefing podium, and powerful overhead television lights, looks nothing like the room I remember from my previous visits. “Look behind the curtain there,” says Charlie Wolfson of CBS, pointing to a 15-foot-high blue fabric screen. “That’s the old backdrop,” he adds, as I walk around the screen to see the familiar portrait of Arafat and the wall-size mural of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. “It wouldn’t do to have Rice standing there with Abu Mazen,” Wolfson cackles.

Two other reporters are arguing over whether the Muqata has WiFi. “I get decent WiFi sitting over here,” Glenn Kessler says, looking up from his laptop.

The man responsible for bringing WiFi to the Muqata is Jim Wilkinson, Rice’s old press aide, a conservative Christian activist from a small town in East Texas. Once named one of the 50 hottest bachelors in America by People magazine, Wilkinson is now the chief of staff for Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. One of the big problems with the march toward Palestinian democracy, Wilkinson told me, was that the visuals were lousy. “Secretary Rice would show up at the Muqata, and you had broken glass, bars on the windows, people with AK-47s running everywhere.”

His solution was to spend a million dollars to remove the scary, chaotic scenes from the evening news, and from the eyesight of the secretary of state. By airbrushing the reality of a corrupt and dysfunctional state, his million-dollar makeover may have done more harm than good. “I brought over Scott Sforsa, who does visuals for the president, who’s obviously the best in the world,” Wilkinson says proudly. “Abu Mazen always looked disordered on TV,” he explains. “That’s because once you get over 40 feet on the throw for a camera, the autofocus kicks in in a weird way. We fixed that.”

In the meantime, the small but hard-won steps toward accountable government that were taken in the last two years of Arafat’s life have all been undone. “Please write this,” the new Palestinian finance minister, Salaam Fayyad, told a reporter recently. “Where is the control? It’s gone. Where is all the transparency? It’s gone.”

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David Samuels is a regular contributor to The Atlantic.

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