A Firm ‘Road Map’

M.J. Rosenberg is director of policy analysis for Israel Policy Forum and a longtime Capitol Hill staffer.

President Bush’s promise that a “road map” to Middle East peace will soon be presented to Israel and the Palestinians has provoked considerable skepticism worldwide. But that’s no surprise given the president’s record.

Since coming to office in January 2001, the Bush administration has proclaimed its commitment to several Middle East initiatives. First, in April 2001, came the so-called Mitchell plan, proposed by a fact-finding commission headed by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell (D-Maine), that called for an end to violence followed by political negotiations. Then, a couple of months later, came the Tenet “work plan,” devised by CIA Director George J. Tenet to reaffirm and kick-start the Mitchell plan. Finally, there was special envoy Gen. Anthony Zinni’s mission to the region, which commenced in November 2001 with the promise that he would stay “as long as it takes” to get the process going. But when the going got rough following last spring’s Passover terror attack, the administration simply pulled him out. He did not return.

The failures of these initiatives don’t reflect a lack of determination or sincerity on the parts of Mitchell, Tenet, Zinni or any of the State Department officials who have set out to end the violence. They have failed because Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was first unwilling and then incapable of stopping the suicide bombing that was terrorizing Israel. When pauses in the terror came, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dismissed them as insignificant and demanded longer periods of “quiet” before he would enter into any kind of talks. At the same time, violent opponents of negotiations on the Palestinian side -- Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Tanzim militia, which is linked to Arafat’s Fatah organization -- essentially achieved veto power over any progress by launching attacks they knew would provoke Israeli reprisals and cause Sharon to invoke his demand for additional quiet before negotiations.

It was a strange kind of dance, with Arafat and Sharon -- and two suffering peoples -- being led into the deadliest of dead ends. The U.S. mediators never really had a chance.

Not all the blame, however, lies with the local players. President Bush came to office a few months after the Al Aqsa intifada began and, almost immediately, sent out the word that his administration had no intention of following President Clinton’s example of fully engaging in resolving the conflict. Administration officials said they would pursue a “regional” approach and then, pointedly, moved the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a back burner. It has remained there since, except for the occasional statement following some atrocity.


So, is there any reason to believe that the administration is serious this time about resolving the Israeli- Palestinian conflict? Yes. The terrain has changed in fundamental ways in recent weeks. But the biggest difference this time is in the vehicle. The authors of the road map -- representatives of the U.S., the European Union, Russia and the United Nations -- have learned from those earlier failed initiatives, and they’ve made some significant improvements.

For starters, the road map avoids calling for quid pro quo actions by the two parties in favor of parallel moves that happen concurrently. Palestinians must end anti-Israel violence, while at the same time Israelis must begin pulling back from areas reoccupied during the intifada. Instead of waiting for Sharon to deem Palestinian efforts to combat terror sufficient for a reciprocal measure, the sponsors of the road map assume that role for themselves (and specifically for the United States). Neither side can refuse to meet its obligations by claiming that the other has not acted.

The United States has agreed to determine compliance. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the Central Intelligence Agency has already set up a special department to “coordinate supervision and monitoring of the implementation of the road map, and track both sides’ implementation of their responsibilities.”

The U.S. role should satisfy Israel, which can trust the Bush administration not to permit the Palestinians to skirt their responsibilities. The Palestinians, with their performance no longer assessed solely by Sharon, will welcome the CIA, which they consider to have been a fair arbiter during the period of the Oslo accords. Israelis too should welcome CIA involvement: Terrorism inside Israel claimed only seven lives during the three years that the CIA monitored Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation before the current intifada began in the fall of 2000. In the 2 1/2 years since the CIA role ended, more than 750 Israelis have been killed by terrorists.

Reasons for optimism about the road map’s prospects, however, go well beyond the document itself. Perhaps most significant is the installation of the new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, known also by his nom de guerre Abu Maazen, who is scheduled to present his Cabinet this month. The advent of Abbas may be the beginning of the end for Arafat, who would have preferred a different prime minister and fought to keep power in his own hands. The Palestinian legislature balked, overruled Arafat and gave the new prime minister broad authority for the day-to-day running of the Palestinian Authority.

The Bush administration welcomed Abbas’ election, viewing it as an affirmation of the president’s call for Palestinian reform as a condition for active U.S. diplomacy. The Israeli government also reacted positively, with the new foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, telling the Knesset that Abbas’ election was a “positive step.” Shalom said he was ready to start working with him. Sharon too had good things to say about Abbas after having him visit his ranch earlier this year. While some American Jewish leaders have been skeptical, citing Abbas’ authorship in 1983 of a strongly anti-Zionist tract -- which contains elements of Holocaust revisionism -- Israelis who know him are more forgiving, noting that in the Israeli- Palestinian context, 1983 is ancient history. They also note that Abbas has been a consistent supporter of peace with Israel and a vocal opponent of Palestinian violence.

Another reason to hope is timing. With the Israeli economy in its worst shape in history, the Sharon government needs a rejuvenated peace process (and, even more, the benefits of peace) to save it. Sharon said recently that “without a diplomatic solution, our economy will collapse.”

Sharon might also be mindful of what happened to Yitzhak Shamir, who was prime minister during the 1991 Gulf War. President George H.W. Bush followed up the U.S. victory by convening an Arab-Israeli peace conference in Madrid. Under U.S. pressure, Israelis and Palestinians, for the first time, began serious negotiations on the issues dividing them. Suddenly, Israelis felt that they had a partner on the Palestinian side. When hard-liner Shamir did not embrace the peace process, he was dispatched in early elections and replaced by the peacemaker Yitzhak Rabin. A similar fate could befall Sharon if Israelis come to view Abbas as a legitimate negotiating partner and Sharon does not respond.

Even his alliances with far-right parties won’t hamper Sharon, should he choose to negotiate peace. Though he might well alienate some of the more reactionary elements of his coalition government, he knows that the opposition Labor Party will back his peace moves, and that its support will more than compensate for any losses on the extreme right. He also knows that no prime minister can afford a confrontation with an American president, especially one considered as pro-Israel as Bush. If Bush pushes Sharon to get with the program, he will.

And Bush is clearly serious. Just last week, he dispatched Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and national security advisor Condoleezza Rice to the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to tell the powerful pro-Israel lobby’s 3,000 assembled members that Bush was standing behind the road map and that “no amendments” would be entertained. This is not what AIPAC wanted to hear. It already was floating legislation on Capitol Hill to turn the road map into a set of demands on Palestinians with no reciprocal requirements on Israel. Nevertheless, the committee had no choice but to greet the administration’s words with restrained applause and only a few hisses. It is unlikely that AIPAC will mount a major anti-Bush effort while American troops are in Iraq, engaged in a war (and, presumably, a postwar occupation) Israelis believe will enhance their security. But there are already indications the group will do all it can -- on Capitol Hill and elsewhere -- to undermine the plan even as it feigns support.

Bush will present the plan, unchanged by Sharon or anyone else, and then Israelis and Palestinians can, in his words, “discuss the road map with one another.” He has no intention of letting Israelis, Palestinians or Israel’s hard-line supporters in the United States nickel-and-dime his plan to death.

Will the road map succeed where other efforts have failed? Quite possibly. But only if Bush sticks to his guns. So far, so good.