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
A Special Relationship

After the roundtable, Rice goes back to her suite, where she is joined, in an unreported meeting, by Danny  Ayalon, the Israeli ambassador to Washington under Ariel Sharon, and Dov Weissglas, Sharon’s fixer in chief.

In a weird way, it makes sense that Rice is having dinner with Ayalon and Weissglas, who are as close as she can get to having dinner with the former prime minister. Now in a coma, Sharon was a perverse and anarchic man who would have made sense as a character in one of the secretary’s favorite Dostoyevsky novels. His mythic standing in Israel, and his bold initiative to uproot Israeli settlers from Gaza, protected him from a slew of indictments, as prosecutors sought to expose the ugly realities of the government he ran with his sons and cronies from his beloved Sycamore Ranch. Sharon was accused of accepting loans, bribes, and illegal money from a motley cast of characters, including the South African millionaire Cyril Kern; Martin Schlaf, an Austrian casino magnate; and David Appel, a real-estate developer and amateur Kabbalist who sought to buy a Greek island where he planned to build a 100,000-room hotel.

“The great contribution of Sharon was he united the people in favor of dividing the land with the Palestinians and against the idea of Greater Israel, whose standard-bearer he was for so many years,” Shimon Peres told me of his bitter rival and, more recently, his partner in government. To further his plan to unilaterally withdraw from parts of the Palestinian territories, Sharon replaced police and army officers who disagreed with his strategic assessments with more-pliable officers. He also opened a diplomatic back channel between Weissglas and Rice that would rewrite the rules of the Israeli-American relationship.

At the height of this exchange, in 2003 and 2004, the two advisers talked as often as three or four times a day. In 2003, Rice used the back channel to encourage and help shape Sharon’s plan to withdraw from Gaza, known as the “disengagement plan.” The relationship culminated in an exchange of letters between Bush and Sharon in which Israel agreed to obey the terms of the road map, and the United States promised that the road map would not move forward until the Palestinian Authority renounced terrorism and actively worked to dismantle terrorist organizations. If the two parties did make progress on the road map, the United States committed itself to backing Israel’s desire to retain major settlement blocs in the West Bank and agreed that Palestinian refugees would be resettled in the future state of Palestine, and not in Israel.

In a bizarre and boastful interview published on October 8, 2004, in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Weissglas revealed that he and Rice had met more than 20 times since May 2002, and that the shortest of these meetings lasted an hour and a half. She called him Dubi, and he called her Condi. “When my conversation with Rice ends,” he explained, “she knows that I walk six steps to Sharon’s desk, and I know that she walks 12 steps to Bush’s desk.”

In the interview, Weissglas came off as an alternately comic and unsettling character, drunk on his own importance and desperate for approval. But the most famous and controversial part came when he described the intent of the letters that he and Rice had drafted for their bosses’ approval. It was Sharon’s view, he explained, that Palestinian terrorism was not the result of specific political grievances but of a deep-seated and eternal Arab hatred of Jews, and that no arrangements for Arab sovereignty over a slice of Palestine would end terror.

From Israel’s perspective, the real purpose of the exchange of letters, and by extension of the entire disengagement plan, could be found in the diplomatic sequence they established: Since Palestinian terrorism would never end, Israel would never be obliged to withdraw from the West Bank. “The disengagement is actually formaldehyde,” Weissglas told Haaretz. “It legitimizes our contention that there is no negotiating with the Palestinians.”

“There will be no timetable to implement the settlers’ nightmare,” Weissglas boasted, “and the rest will not be dealt with until the Palestinians turn into Finns. That is the significance of what we did. The significance is the freezing of the political process. And when you freeze that process you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and you prevent a discussion about the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem.”

For Rice, who believes in the primacy of underlying historical circumstances, the exchange of letters was hardly so important. It was simply a ratification of an existing understanding. By putting that understanding in writing, however, she had made it much more difficult to act if and when circumstances changed. With the Saudi king pressing the United States to pressure Israel, Rice found herself bound by handcuffs that she herself had fashioned.

Unlike Weissglas, Ayalon is a calm man not generally given to superlatives. “I believe these letters are no less important than the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which recognized for the first time the birthright of the Jews to their homeland,” he told me. “The Balfour Declaration was the basis for Israel’s future existence as a country. This letter from Bush fixes the borders of the state. Condi’s role was absolutely critical.”

Presented by

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

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