WASHINGTON -- When the “road map” for Middle East peace is unveiled in the coming days, the most important part of the plan will not be the document. It will be President Bush’s commitment to it.
Nearly a year after he promised to do his best to forge peace between Israelis and Palestinians, both sides are asking: Does he really mean it?
The president’s commitment is crucial, because both parties will have to make painful concessions. And that means Bush, who has taken a softer line toward Israel than the Palestinians, will have to become more even-handed if he wants to be credible.
He will have to be willing to pressure his close ally, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, to make unpopular moves required by the plan -- such as dismantling some Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory.
“It’s going to be controversial. People will want to change it, and people will want to comment on it,” Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Tuesday. “Let them comment on it, let them start talking to one another, but above all, let them start taking action ... to move down this road map to the creation of a Palestinian state. The president’s committed to put the full weight of his office and all of us behind this.”
The stakes for Bush could hardly be higher.
In the wake of war in Iraq, his behavior toward Israel will be seen as a litmus test of whether the United States really means what it has said about seeking democracy and peace throughout the Middle East.
“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has taken on a significance much larger than ... itself,” said Judith Kipper, director of the Middle East Forum at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank. “It’s the absolute core of anti-Americanism in the region and the rest of the world.”
At home, the road map and how hard he pushes it could affect Bush’s reelection campaign, because two key groups of voters -- Jews and evangelical Christians -- strongly support Israel.
During his recent trip to Belfast, Bush pledged to emulate British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s perseverance in brokering peace in Northern Ireland.
“I’ve talked at length with [Blair] about how hard he had to work to bring the process this far. I’m willing to expend the same amount of energy in the Middle East,” Bush said.
But even before the road map is formally unveiled, some members of the president’s core constituency are lining up against it. Many of the neoconservatives whose views often hold sway in the administration are known to oppose it, primarily because they believe the Palestinians should go first in making concessions.
A central tenet of the road map as outlined by administration officials is that concessions should be made by both sides more or less at the same time, not in strict sequence.
There’s also resistance to the plan on Capitol Hill, where a majority of lawmakers -- 87 senators and 297 House members -- have signed letters circulated by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that suggest the Palestinians need to do more before Israel should consider concessions.
Most of the signers express general support for the road map but often add a subtle caveat by referring to the plan “as outlined in the president’s speech last June.” In that speech, Bush did not specify that steps by each side would be simultaneous.
“The simultaneity is the absolute core of the road map,” said M.J. Rosenberg, policy director for the Israel Policy Forum, which supports the road map plan.
Bush’s strong support for Israel has gained new backing for the Republican Party among Jewish voters, who traditionally vote Democratic. GOP leaders would like to win over more Jewish voters, who could prove crucial in next year’s presidential race in Florida and other states.
In addition, many evangelical Christians, who form a large part of the president’s electoral base, see present-day Israel as the embodiment of the biblical land of Israel.
“The reason most evangelicals support Israel is that we believe in the Bible. God gave Israel to the Jews. We believe God gave that land to them forever,” said Richard Land, chairman of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. “The second reason is that God says he would bless those who bless Israel and curse those who curse Israel.”
John Fortier, an analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said an issue so close to the heart of evangelicals could backfire on the president.
“But I don’t think [Bush] will get to that point,” Fortier said. “I don’t think he is going to push Sharon so hard that he alienates voters.”
Fortier predicted the White House will try to lower expectations for the plan. And that seemed to be the case, at least on Tuesday, as White House officials suggested that the success of the road map hinges on Israel and the Palestinians, not Bush.
“We’ll be there. We’ll be involved in this process. But it is up to them to do it,” said National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack.
As is often the case with Bush, his actions are likely to be in line with his gut instincts.
“I think there is a 40% chance he shocks” Sharon, said one senator who met recently with Bush. “I think there is a possibility he hangs tough. [But] I think the probability is [domestic politics] prevails.”