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It would be a mistake to view the Israeli cabinet’s narrow approval of the Bush administration’s "road map" on Sunday, (or Sharon’s use of the word "occupation") as steps towards resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict or as a victory for President Bush. If there is any gloating to be done, it will be by Israel’s domestic US lobby and it will largely be done in private.
Had the administration not surrendered on Friday to Ariel Sharon’s demands for significant revisions in the "road map," the Israeli cabinet might not even have taken the vote. Moreover, the president would not have been forced to make those concessions had not the Israeli prime minister been backed solidly by the pro-Israel lobby and by the majority of both houses of Congress. And thus, the supposedly immutable "peace plan" has foundered at the starting gate.
As his part of the deal, and before the cabinet vote, Sharon publicly accepted the plan’s broad outlines, but not the phased steps contained in the original which carried the stamp and presumably the input of the "Quartet," (Britain, the European Union and the Russians plus the US).
During the debate, Sharon told his cabinet that the 14 reservations about the plan that Israel presented to Washington were not negotiable. (BBC, May 25) One that has been prominently mentioned is Israel’s refusal to recognize the right to return of Palestinians who were expelled or who left in 1948, an issue that was not to be raised until the "road map’s" final phase.
Its prospects can best be understood by a metaphor that arose from a press conference with Secretary of State Colin Powell who up to Friday had been insisting that "no changes" would be made in the "road map."
Faced with yet another humiliation at the hands of the Israeli prime minister, Powell downplayed criticism that the US was simply kicking the can down the road by agreeing to address Israel’s concerns "fully and seriously."
"At least we have a can in the road," Powell told reporters. "We have to get started. And so the can is in the road now. We will start moving it down the road with perhaps little kicks as opposed to a 54-yarder."
"It’s easy to say, why don’t you solve this up front – because you couldn’t. You have to get started," Powell said, adding that issues like dismantling some Israeli settlement outposts may be "very, very difficult" to resolve. (Ha’aretz May 24). And if those are hard for Powell to contemplate, one can imagine the problems the administration will face if it attempts to deal seriously with those that can no longer be euphemistically described as settlements and have become well-established and well-populated towns that the US no longer considers to be illegal.
This raises a key question. Quite apart from the failings inherent in the document, itself, weighted as it is in Israel’s favor, it is difficult, at this point, to discern how much the effort of the Bush administration to pursue the "road map" is one of substance as opposed to appearances.
Every American president, beginning with Richard Nixon and the Rogers Plan, has attempted to get Israel out of the territories it seized in 1967, and every president since Jimmy Carter, has attempted to get Israel to halt the building of Jewish settlements. Some of these efforts have been more serious than others but all have failed. Given the events of the past few days, the prospects of the current office holder do not seem any better.
"What happened to all those nice plans?" asked Israeli journalist and peace activist, Uri Avnery, back during the first Bush’s administration. (Ha’aretz, March 6, 1991).
"Israel’s governments have mobilized the collective power of US Jewry – which dominates Congress and the media to a large degree – against them. Faced by this vigorous opposition, all the presidents, great and small, football players and movie stars – folded one after another." And so it appears to have happened once again.
By its efforts to be "more Bush than Bush," Israel’s officially registered lobby, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), appears to have gotten its way. It wanted to appear to be supportive of the "road map," while working to derail it . It managed this trick by drawing on a speech that Dubya gave last June 24, in which he expressed such strong and unqualified support for Israel that some observers, like Robert Fisk, jokingly suggested that it might have been written by Sharon.
Unlike, the "road map," it had no timetable and placed the onus on the Palestinians to institute a new, democratic government and end all "terrorist acts" before Israel was required to take a single step.
Rather than openly criticizing the "road map," and be seen as in opposition both to a popular president and to "peace," AIPAC decided to get the members of both houses to sign a letter supporting the "road map" as well as statements that Bush made in the June 24 speech.
Columnist Leonard Fein, apprised his readers of this the May 2 Forward:
"For many weeks," he wrote, "there’s been a campaign to subvert the road map meaning, in context, to subvert the prospect of resuming the peace process. Since the president is on record as endorsing it, the subversion has taken … the form of end runs rather than direct attacks.
"Encouraged by AIPAC many members of Congress have signed onto letters opposing any role for the quartet and insisting that the Palestinians must fulfill all their obligations in the security realm before the Israelis are called upon to act."
AIPAC’s actions were not a secret, except that the mainstream media wasn’t looking. Its web site reported that, in the run-up to the release of the "road map" letters were circulated in both houses, urging Bush to "reaffirm his unshakable commitment to his June 24 principles" and to remain focused on Palestinian performance rather setting any timetable.
When it comes to Israel, Washington plays host to the strangest of bed mates. The Senate letter, which was signed by 88 of the 100 senators, was sponsored by the liberals’ darling, Barbara Boxer and one of the liberals’ anathemas, Mitch McConnell, along with Senators Dick Durbin (D)
and John Ensign (R).
The House letter, initiated by Republicans Roy Blunt and Henry Hyde and Democrats Stenny Hoyer and Tom Lantos, attracted 321 signatures.
The message to Bush, as described by Nathan Guttman in Ha’aretz (May 19) was "cautious but clear. The congressmen say they support the road map and want American intervention in the peace process on basis of a two-state solution, but warn the administration not to make too many demands on Israel before the Palestinians do their part.
"Many are urging you [Bush] to short circuit this process and to focus on timelines in achieving the road map benchmarks," they wrote. "We believe you will not be dissuaded and will focus instead on real performance."
The letter, writes Guttman, "demands that the Palestinians dismantle the terrorist infrastructure, restructure its security apparatus, and provide more transparency and responsibility" on the part of the Palestine Authority.
Guttman gave credit for this enormous support to AIPAC. Although the letters have no formal status or legislative meaning, Guttman points out, "the fact that so many congressmen, from both parties, signed them should make it clear to the administration that Capitol Hill firmly supports Israel and demands that the Palestinians fight terror."
Israel’s friends in Congress have not relied simply on a letter. "Language codifying the president’s policy was included in the FY03 Foreign Operations Appropriations bill, passed as part of the Omnibus Appropriations bill signed into law by the president in February.
The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations which generally lobbies the Executive Branch while AIPAC takes care of Congress, came out against the road map, but supposedly does not want to appear to be disagreeing with the president. Yet its own chair, Mortimer Zuckerman, owner of the NY Daily News and the US News & World Report, blasted the road map in an editorial in the magazine on March 17, headlining it as "The Road Map to nowhere."
Zuckerman, soon to step down from his chairmanship, is keeping up the attack. In an editorial to be published in the June 2 edition of US News, he writes that, "Washington… having gone to war to eliminate a rogue terrorist regime, can hardly now support the creation of a new Palestinian terrorist state, with its history of contacts with terrorist networks from all over the world."
The conference’s executive director, Malcolm Hoenlein has been more subtle, telling the Washington Post (April 30), that ,"We want to see a process begin that has a real chance to succeed. We think the principles enunciated by the president in his June 24 speech would do that, and there are elements in the road map that contradict that."
Illustrating the divisions that exist within the organized Jewish community, the same article reported that 14 major Jewish philanthropists had voiced strong support for the "road map."
These big donors, who included Edgar M. Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress, said in a letter, to congressional leaders that the plan "provides Israel with a distinct opportunity to escape the bloody status quo" of the past 2 1/2 years.
"The people who signed this letter are disturbed that the message the administration is getting from other parts of the Jewish community is opposition to the president’s plan, when it should be enthusiastic support," said Jonathan Jacoby, with Americans for Peace Now, who helped organize the letter’s signers.
These "peaceniks" should not be confused with supporters of the Palestinian cause. What the differences among the majority of the Jewish community reflect is a struggle that escalated during the Clinton administration between liberal Zionists, such as Martin Indyk and Dennis Ross whom the president brought into the State Department and into the Middle East negotiating process, and the right-wing Zionists represented most noticeably by the Zionist Association of America’s bulldog of a chair, Morton Klein and the dozen or more Jewish neo-cons who brought us the Gulf War and who now engaged in stoking the fires against Iran and Syria in Israel’s behalf.
Klein, speaking in Berkeley in the first week of May, repeated what has become his mantra on the issue. "This road map is a disaster," he said. "It cannot and will not work. It’s further appeasing terrorism." (No. California Jewish Bulletin, May 15)
The liberal wing of the Jewish community is very willing to see the establishment of a truncated, demilitarized Palestinian Bantustan under Israel’s control and which would be subservient to US interests as well, while the right-wing backs Sharon’s Likud and even further right parties and their goal of a Greater Israel. At the moment, they are clearly in the ascendancy in the US as they are in Israel.
The spate of suicide bombings that followed the meeting of Sharon with Mohammed Abbas (Abu Mazen), led to an escalation of warnings to Bush from both the Likudniks and their Christian evangelical allies against pursuing the "road map", including a group of Born Agains organized by former White House aide Gary Bauer, president of American Values.
At the same time, supporters of the "road map" were also upping their efforts, arguing that the latest violence proved the urgency of steps to bring the two sides together. Forty members of Congress submitted a letter to Bush last week urging him to press forward with the "road map" while separately, 100 major Democratic donors and activists, organized by the Israel Policy Forum, signed a letter to the party’s nine presidential contenders urging them to back the president’s plan.
The Forward’s Ori Nir noted out (May 23) that "The flurry of pro- and anti-road map activity pointed to a paradoxical dilemma facing the president as he plans his next moves: His strongest opposition comes from political allies whose enmity could cost him in 2004, while his strongest support comes from liberal groups that are unlikely to reward him politically for his efforts."
"These guys" – the pro-road map liberals – "are not Bush’s friends," said Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, executive vice president of the hawkish Religious Zionists of America, and head of his own pro-Israel political action committee..
He predicted that the White House would pay more attention to the condemnations of the "road map" that emerged from a gathering of right-wing Jewish and Christian activists in Washington on May 18. Billed as the "Interfaith Zionist Leadership Summit," the event drew about 400 participants and was sponsored by Jewish and Christian groups that oppose the creation of a Palestinian state.
And it matters not, that as Fein points out, "the fact that the road map is plainly "frontloaded," demanding much more of the Palestinians than of the Israelis in its early phases, [and that] the Palestinians have indicated their acceptance of it while Prime Minister Sharon has interposed 14 specific objections."
And as Fein notes, "Sharon is hardly alone: The Jewish gurus of this administration, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, William Kristol and others along with Vice President Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld who not long ago referred to the West Bank as ‘so-called occupied territories’ oppose this and presumably any reasonable alternative road map." Moreover, he adds, "The heavies of AEI (American Enterprise Institute) [where we find Perle again] oppose it."
In fact, by declaring that settlements built illegally after March 2001 must be removed, the "road map" implies that those built earlier are legitimate. By calling for Israel to halt the killing of civilians, it affords tacit approval for the continued assassination of whomever Israel considers a "terrorist," while placing the Palestinian Authority in charge of eliminating any armed resistance to the continuing occupation.
Moreover, nothing is mentioned about Israel’s building of the massive wall that has already confiscated yet more Palestinian land. That the questions of the right of return of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem are put off to the road map’s last phase seems to indicate that the "road map" was designed as a means to end the Intifada and the notion of a Palestinian state of any dimensions emerging at the end is little more than a
This illusion has even been incorporated into Congressional legislation. On May 16, the Forward, reported that the House International Relations Committee had unanimously approved an amendment to next year’s State Department authorization bill, promising direct American financial aid to a reformed, peaceful Palestinian state once it is established.
The amendment, reportedly supported by both AIPAC and Americans for Peace Now, ostensibly endorses Bush’s two-state approach to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and declares that "a stable and peaceful Palestinian state is necessary to achieve the security that Israel longs for."
Declaring that "the United States has an interest in a Middle East in which two states – Israel and Palestine – will live side by side in peace and security," the bill, as reported by the Forward, calls on Israel to "take concrete steps in support of the emergence of a viable, credible Palestinian state."
It was introduced by Lantos and Gary Ackerman of New York, two of the Sharon regime’s strongest backers in the House and Illinois’s Henry Hyde, no slouch himself when coddling Israeli interests.
Congressional staffers cited by the Forward described the bill, expected to "easily sail through" both houses of Congress, as an attempt to "codify" Bush’s Middle East speech of June 24, 2002, which set out conditions for creation of a Palestinian state.
The bill’s conditions, however, notes the Forward, are more explicit than those in the speech.
It says Washington should recognize the Palestinian state only after a new Palestinian leadership is elected, after the Palestinians cease terrorism and incitement, take counter-terrorism measures in full cooperation with Israel, and ensure democracy and rule of law.
The enactment of the strict conditions appeared to be a victory for Israel, wrote the Forward, which also viewed the president’s speech as being tougher on the Palestinians than the road map.
The Christian Science Monitor (May 19) suggested that Bush could use economic leverage on Israel to accede to the road map’s schedule. It pointed out that "Congress acted last month to help the Israeli economy with a $1 billion grant in military assistance and $9 billion in loan guarantees. That’s on top of the usual $2.7 billion in annual aid to Israel."
"The $1 billion grant was automatically made available to Israel. It even allows $263 million of that money to be used to buy Israeli military goods. No leverage there.
"But the loan guarantees, available over three years, depend on a presidential determination that Israel is following proper economic policies to restrain its budget, shrink the public sector, and encourage the private sector. Bush can, if he chooses, withhold portions of the loan if Israel continues to spend money on the heavily subsidized Jewish settlements.
"Israel needs the loan guarantees to cover its sizable budget deficit and help repay older Israeli bonds."
Such pressure, however, isn’t likely. In the May 2 Forward, Ori Nir writes that, "American assurances to Israel under the road map are far more extensive than have been publicly disclosed."
"In a letter expressing understandings about the road map, the United States guarantees that it, not Europe or the United Nations, will oversee the monitoring of Palestinian compliance with the plan on security matters. Senior administration officials also have made a point of assuring Israel and its American supporters in recent weeks that any significant progress toward Palestinian statehood will depend on a cessation of Palestinian terrorism."
What the article didn’t mention but what apparently was its source was a less publicized visit to Israel, before that of Colin Powell, by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Elliot Abrams, who, thanks
to Rice’s influence, had been appointed by Bush to be the NSC’s Director of Near East and North African Affairs.
On May 18, before Sharon’s visit had been canceled, the New York Post reported that Rice and Abrams were part of a White House delegation that secretly visited Israel a fortnight earlier to get the prime minister’s views on the "road map."
He couldn’t have had a more receptive audience. Abrams, of Iran-Contra infamy, is a long-time Likud supporter. And while there, Rice told Yediot Aharanot that the "security of Israel is the key to security of the world." As if more was necessary, she added, among other things, that she feels "a deep bond to Israel."
The three-day tour by the Americans was described by Sharon as "the most serious White House team to visit Israel in many years," and was intended to set the stage for what would have his eighth meeting with Bush, during which Sharon told the Post, he has enjoyed "the friendliest and most fruitful relations the White House ever had with an Israeli government."
A statement from Israel’s Gush Shalom, on May 18, presumably with input from Uri Avnery, noted that," In his time as Prime Minister, Sharon had already neatly disposed of numerous international diplomatic proposals: the Mitchell Report, the Tenet Paper and the Zinni Paper, the Saudi Initiative – to name only the best known.
"Still, the ‘road map’ initially seemed to tax his considerable talents: a paper bearing the combined imprimatur of the US, EU, Russia and the UN, which had been at the top of the diplomatic agenda for nearly a year, which was formally launched with the personal sponsorship of the US President fresh from victory in Iraq and which was immediately accepted in its entirety and without reservations by the Palestinian side.
"Yet none of this seemed to deter Sharon from industriously – and, as seems at the moment, successfully – subverting and overturning that initiative, too."
As if to underscore Gush Shalom’s statement, an unidentified administration official was quoted in the New York Times (May 21) as asking, "How many special envoys have gone out there and had their reputations ruined.
Where are we going to find somebody to do it when the chances are so poor?"
JEFFREY BLANKFORT is the former editor of the Middle East Labor Bulletin and currently hosts radio programs on KZYX in Mendocino, CA and KPOO in San Francisco. He can be reached at: email@example.com