Bush Won’t Come to Shove on the Roadmap

Last Wednesday the Bush administration released the much-anticipated Road Map for Arab-Israeli peace. It spells out a timeline for the three-phase implementation of specific measures by both sides under the auspices of the Quartet comprising the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations. Its goal is a permanent resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict by 2005 based on UN Security Council Resolutions 224, 338 and 1397, with two states, Israel and a sovereign, independent, democratic and viable Palestine, living side-by-side in peace and security. Prospects for success are grim at best, hinging on how the three major players” the Palestinian Authority, the government of Israel and the United States” will act at the critical junctures.

In a repeat of the Oslo process’ fatal flaw, negotiations on the most contentious issues” permanent borders, status of Jerusalem, status of Israeli settlements established since 1967, and resolution of the Palestinian refugees’ right of return” are scheduled towards the end of the road, for Phase III in 2004. Yet it is doubtful that even the provisions of Phase I, to be implemented immediately, will see the light of day.

Even before they take any action on the ground, the two sides are to issue unequivocal statements: The Palestinian leadership reiterating Israel’s right to exist in peace and security, and the Israeli government affirming its commitment to an independent, viable, sovereign Palestinian state. Both are problematic. The Palestinian leadership” in the person of newly-appointed Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and his cabinet” speaks for an undetermined number of Palestinians. Its statements about Israel’s right to exist are rejected by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, two of the Palestinian factions that enjoy significant support among Palestinians for their use of suicide bombings against Israeli civilians to create a “symmetry of pain and suffering” between the two peoples. The majority party in the Israeli government is the Likud, whose central committee passed a unanimous resolution last year rejecting the establishment of any independent Palestinian state between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea. Its two largest coalition partners, the National Union Party and the National Religious Party, are, if anything, ideologically to its right. Any statement of unequivocal commitment to an independent and viable Palestinian state” improbable to begin with” will likely lead to the collapse of the government.

Far surpassing the difficulties of uttering the right words are the demands on the two sides to diffuse tensions on the ground by taking parallel actions that are themselves potentially highly explosive. The Palestinian leadership is required to arrest, disrupt and restrain individuals and groups conducting and planning violent attacks on Israelis. That virtually translates to civil war between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, Islamic Jihad and al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade, among others. For its part the Israeli government is required to refrain from attacking Palestinian civilians and to end its destruction of Palestinian homes, property, institutions and infrastructure. It is also required to immediately dismantle settlement outposts erected since March 2001, and to freeze all settlement activity, including natural growth of settlements. There is another prescription for its collapse.

To have any chance of success, the roadmap needs as intense and vigorous a personal commitment by President Bush as he displayed toward creating a new reality in Iraq, including a willingness to force the issue on Israel. That is unlikely to be forthcoming if his political survival is at stake. A large majority of senators and members of congress have signed a letter urging Mr. Bush not to pressure Israel on the roadmap. He hears the same message from his core constituents in the pro-Israel Christian Right. With preparations for the 2004 re-election campaign already underway, President Bush is faced with a simple choice: alienate his most important base of support at home to repay British Prime Minister Tony Blair for his unwavering solidarity on Iraq, or let Blair take care of his own political skin, let the roadmap go the way of mideast peace processes past, retain the good graces of his friends at home, and thus maximize his chances of a second term in the Oval Office, this time probably with a clear-cut victory in Florida

The Sharon government has prepared a long list of objections to specifics in the roadmap, not least of which is the requirement that both sides perform most of their obligations in parallel. National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell have stressed that the roadmap is non-negotiable. In Israel they’re betting that Bush won’t come to shove.

TARIF ABBOUSHI lives in Houston, Texas. He can be reached at: tabboushi@aol.com