Israelis and Palestinians appear to be “dead serious” about pursuing a peace deal that would establish a separate Palestinian state, Brian F. Gunderson, chief of staff to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, tells Newsmax.
“Neither of the parties, the Israelis or the Palestinians, would have come to Annapolis if they didn’t believe that a deal was there to be had,” Gunderson says in his office on the top floor of the State Department. “In other words, both of them could see the outlines of a deal and are dead serious about pursuing it.”
While Gunderson’s view mirrors that of Rice and President Bush, he ticked off more detailed reasons than they have given to believe a peace agreement could be a reality. Gunderson, 45, is at Rice’s side constantly and also focuses on personnel issues, including selection of ambassadors. As Rice’s chief of staff, he has never previously granted an on-the-record press interview.
With his soft voice, closely cropped salt-and-pepper hair, and low key style, Gunderson is a contrast to Col. Lawrence B. Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s chief of staff, a swaggering aide who made no secret of his contempt for President Bush. Gunderson was previously chief of staff to former House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey, R-Texas. He focused on foreign affairs and defense issues. As he does now with Rice, Gunderson also acted as a counselor as well as chief of staff. Before joining Rice’s staff in January 2005, he was chief of staff to Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick.
When working for Dick Armey, Gunderson would typically check out three weighty biographies or histories each week from the Library of Congress to read at home, a former Armey aide recalls.
“When he traveled overseas, he often educated those around him on everything from the terrain they were seeing and the country’s history to foreign policy,” says Jim Wilkinson, who worked with Gunderson in Armey’s office, became a senior adviser to Rice, and is now chief of staff to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. “If you had a substantive policy or strategy question, you went to Brian first.”
One day, a D.C. police officer called Armey’s office and asked to speak with Gunderson. When a staffer asked him what the call was about, Gunderson said he had had a little encounter on Capitol Hill the previous night. A mugger armed with a gun tried to steal his wallet. Gunderson, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps reserve from 1982 to 1988, turned and walked away, his wallet intact.
Contrary to reports in the press that Rice is taking the lead on a Middle East peace agreement to build her legacy, Gunderson sees the peace initiative as Bush’s.
“One thing people need to realize is that she and the president are very, very close,” Gunderson says. “On any initiative like this, they speak during some periods several times a day. So I would regard this as President Bush’s initiative, and the secretary of state is doing everything she can to help out.”
As with most international negotiations, a lot happens behind the scenes, Gunderson says.
“Secretary Rice, as you know, has been in the region I think eight times this year alone,” Gunderson notes. “She’s been following a pattern of going out there every three or four weeks at least, and she’s on the phone just an enormous amount with almost everyone relevant to this process.”
Shortly after the Annapolis meeting last month, “We actually tallied up the number of phone calls she made to her counterparts, including dozens over Thanksgiving weekend, and it was staggering,” Gunderson says. “So she has a pretty good sense of where the actors are.”
When Rice goes to Saudi Arabia, “She spends a lot of quality time with the Saudi king, who’s a key player here,” Gunderson says. “And she’s spent hours and hours and hours with the Palestinians and Israelis.”
Peace Beneficial to All
Gunderson’s view is that both sides see value in reaching an agreement that will allow them to live in peace with each other while this administration is in office.
“If we don’t reach an agreement now, then that means putting it off until deep 2009 or into 2010, simply because of the transition,” he says. “I think the Israelis in particular have a lot of confidence in President Bush’s commitment to their security. President Bush is a known quantity to them through the second intifada, which was a vicious campaign against Israeli civilians. The president made it very clear that he thought the Israelis had a right to defend themselves. I think they appreciated that.”
On the other hand, “They simply don’t know what the next president’s attitude may be,” he says.
Throughout the region, “There is a certain fatigue with extremism,” Gunderson says. “A lot of the major Arab countries are eager to have things settle down. They don’t like the way politics in the region have played out in the last number of years. So for that reason, I think that there’s new interest in a moderate solution of the problem rather than continuing to have the level of unrest that we’ve seen.”
From both sides’ standpoint, the fact that Iran is increasingly seen as a threat is another motivator.
“Many people have suggested that the assertiveness of Iran and the fear of Iran that exists throughout the region has led many of the leading actors to want to solve this problem so that they can focus on the true threat to their interest, which is coming from the east,” Gunderson says. “So from all that, she’s cautiously optimistic that some serious progress can be made here.”
Gunderson points out that at the conference, Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, applauded Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s speech.
“President [Mahmoud] Abbas talked about how moving the setting was, how the city [Annapolis] is filled with the symbols of freedom,” Gunderson says. “That was certainly encouraging, to see those sorts of moderate, hopeful sentiments coming from a Palestinian leader. I’m not sure you would have had that in the past with people like Yasser Arafat. And Prime Minister Olmert acknowledged the suffering of the Palestinian people, which I think was a very good gesture for an Israeli leader to make.”
The next step is that the Israelis and the Palestinians are going to engage in bilateral talks.
Possibility of Tangible Results
“We’re going to give them a little bit of space to do that,” Gunderson says.” And at some point on a date yet to be determined, Secretary Rice will go back to the region and again will do what she can to further things along.”
Yet, as always when dealing with the Middle East, “You need to be very careful,” Gunderson observes. “It’s a very, very difficult region, and there’s a very tragic history of peace efforts between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Nevertheless, this is clearly worth a try, and there is reason to think that something real may be happening.”
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via e-mail. Go here now.
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