The Road to Palestine

On June 4, 2003, President George W. Bush personally renewed the latest American quest for Arab-Israeli peace. Presiding over a summit at the Jordanian port of Aqaba, with King Abdullah of Jordan, Prime Minister Sharon of Israel, and the new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, Bush pledged to see the parties through to a shared Holy Land: “a vibrant Jewish state” and a democratic, sovereign Palestinian state. As the Red Sea lapped gently behind them, Abdullah foresaw normal relations for Israel with Arab states; Abbas renounced and denounced “terrorism against the Israelis wherever they might be;” and Sharon declared Israel’s interest in a “democratic Palestinian state fully at peace with Israel.” All committed themselves to the diplomatic initiative known as the “Roadmap.”

Thus, did the United States set its foot firmly on the road to Palestine. But is the Map accurate? And do those beginning the journey have the strength to follow it?

Stage One: The Poison Pills

The Roadmap reflected two years of diplomacy among the so- called Quartet, the United States, the European Union, the U.N. and Russia.

It originated in the abortive Mitchell Plan, an international commission chaired by former Senator George Mitchell that was formed by the Sharm el-Sheikh summit, in October 2000. The commission’s charge was to investigate the origins of the violence that began after Ariel Sharon, then leader of the Likud opposition, toured the Temple Mount. Its report also detailed a “roadmap” consisting of critical but politically costly steps each side could take to renew confidence in the other. By swallowing these “poison pills,” the Israeli and Palestinian leaders might resume the diplomatic path toward resolution of the conflict. For the Palestinians, Mitchell prescribed a maximum effort to curtail violence, incitement, and weaponry forbidden under the Oslo Accords; for the Israelis, the freezing of settlement construction even if justified by “natural increase” of the settlers.

The Mitchell Report, delivered May 21, 2001, was promptly adopted by the new Bush Administration, accepted by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and paralyzed by mutual accusations of non-compliance immediately thereafter. But Bush would not follow Clinton’s example of intensive personal involvement that ultimately failed to bring agreement. Instead, Powell was delegated to reweave the diplomacy. Borrowing from a formula for multilateral cooperation that had worked twenty years ago in South Africa (called the “contact group”), he dubbed his international consultations with Russia, the European Union, and the U.N., the “Quartet.” Their first act was to support Mitchell.

The Quartet could not make much music beyond that note because its members played different tunes. This was not new. Essentially, the other three wanted the United States to impose a detailed settlement on the parties by which they meant the establishment of a Palestinian state led by Yassir Arafat on terms perhaps even more generous than those offered by defeated Israeli Prime Minister Barak or former President Clinton (the “parameters” of December 2000). No major Israeli politician was prepared to offer such terms once the intifada was underway with Arafat’s complicity, certainly not the Sharon-Peres government. Nor would George W. Bush invest in Arafat, of whom he recounted later, “… I saw what he did to President Clinton. There was no need to spend capital, unless you had an interlocutor who could deliver the Palestinian people toward peace” (Tom Brokaw interview, April 25, 2003).

Stage Two: The U.S. Endorses a State

Thus stalled, neither the Roadmap nor the Quartet could advance until after 9/11. As the United States began the War on Terrorism, the Bush Administration brought new pressure on Arafat to break with the violence lest he find himself in the same camp as bin Laden. A big carrot was also offered: in November 2001, Bush became the first American president to endorse a Palestinian state as a necessary part of a solution. This second stage came largely to naught, however, when Arafat tried to pose as fireman while stoking the flames. His denial of complicity in the Karine A arms smuggling affair ended his credibility in Washington, substantiating Bush’s original doubt about Arafat’s commitment to a negotiated solution. Then the Passover bombing of March 27, 2002, triggered a successful Israeli operation to reoccupy West Bank towns vacated under Oslo (Operation Defensive Shield). Imprisoned in his wrecked headquarters, Arafat expected an international rescue led by the Americans. Instead he got a visit from Powell with fresh demands.

On June 24, 2002, Bush delivered himself of a speech that the Arabs, the U.N., and the Europeans expected to be the long sought American blueprint for settlement, one made all the more necessary by the new American campaign to threaten Saddam. It proved instead to be a blueprint for Palestinian “reform.” Bush singled out the absence of a credible Palestinian negotiating partner and insisted that American patronage of a Palestinian state depended on new leadership “untainted” by terrorism. Now, Powell’s task was to construct a new roadmap, one that passed through a Palestinian establishment redeemed from Arafat’s control of money and guns.

Despite the “shock and awe” that greeted this initiative, Powell found the Quartet surprisingly cooperative. Given the instrument at last to assure presidential commitment, the Russians, the U.N., and the European Union quickly grasped that association with the new roadmap was also their best opportunity to influence American policy. They were also heartened by Palestinian readiness to demand reform from Arafat’s corrupt and inept government.

Stage Three: The Quartet Write a Map

The Roadmap diplomacy also responded to the demands for action on the Israeli-Palestinian front as war loomed with Iraq. In 1991, the first President Bush promised a new peace process to follow the liberation of Kuwait and delivered in the form of the Madrid Conference. Now, his son would promise a new effort for peace, once the Iraqis were free of Saddam and the Palestinians were free of Arafat. The function of the Roadmap was to show the way. After several drafting rounds, the document was ready on December 20, 2002.

By that time, Bush’s principal European ally, U.K. Prime Minister Blair, had resorted to even more extensive promises about an Israeli-Palestinian initiative in order to placate his restive party, some of whom were anxious to stick it to Sharon. Sharon, in turn, had been plenty unhappy with both the Map and its sponsors but chose not to open a quarrel with the United States in the shadow of approaching war with Iraq. Moreover, the Israeli leader’s carefully constructed National Unity Government had ended unexpectedly in September, necessitating a new election in late January 2003.

Bush threaded his way carefully through these conflicting pressures. He would not intervene to influence an Israeli election against the Likud, as Clinton had done in 1996 and 1999. He agreed to Sharon’s plea to postpone publication of the map but coupled this with an insistence that it not be modified further before publication. He also wanted demonstrable progress on Palestinian reform.

The Roadmap was finally revealed on April 30, 2003, triggered by the end of the Iraq war and the installment of Mahmoud Abbas, known more popularly as Abu Mazen, as the first Palestinian Prime Minister. Bye and large, the text reflects the American (and Israeli) preference for a staged re-engagement of the parties rather than a detailed settlement to be imposed upon them. It presumes that they are willing and capable of doing so if the United States, the Quartet, and a regional coalition can reduce their risks in the process.

Although very much an interim device that leaves solutions for neuralgic issues such as borders, refugees, settlements, and Jerusalem for later, two very significant issues do bring the end game forward. The shape of the Palestinian state is very detailed, especially on the control of money and security, notably: “All Palestinian security organizations are consolidated into three services reporting to an empowered Interior Minister,” who, in turn, responds to the new “interim Prime Minister.” For their part, the Israelis are demanded to do what Oslo never prescribed, namely, a freezing of settlements, including natural growth, preceded by the dismantling of outposts erected since March 2001.

The Roadmap contains, too, Bush’s idea for a “possible interim” Palestinian state, that is, one able to function “with attributes of sovereignty” before the three-year deadline for a final resolution of all the issues. This idea has titillated both sides: the Palestinians gain a state without having to make final concessions on vital issues such as Jerusalem and refugees; the Israelis presumably gain a reliable partner in the process with a real stake in cooperation while also not having to make final concessions on the same issues. But the Palestinians fear that nothing will be so permanent as the temporary. And the Israelis fear that recognition of a Palestinian state, even a temporary one, without resolution of the refugee problem, for instance, will expose them to escalating pressures to admit many thousands of hostile claimants. The Roadmap simply postpones those fears.

The Roadmap also assigns specific roles for the Quartet. Two international conferences are projected: one to ratify a newly elected, constitutional Palestinian government; the second to “endorse” agreement on “an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders” and to launch “a process with the active, sustained, and operational support of the Quartet” leading to final agreement on Israeli-Palestinian issues. Peace between Israel, Syria, and Lebanon will also “be achieved as soon as possible.” Most significantly, “based upon the consensus judgment of the Quartet of whether conditions are appropriate to proceed, taking into account performance of both parties,” the Roadmap is to move across three phases: initial “stabilization,” the interim state, and final agreement. Thus, the wagons appear to be loaded with several would-be drivers and, to judge by past performance, not so disciplined horses.

Last, and surely not least, the Roadmap attempts to limit the damage done by regional troublemakers, notably other Arab states whose public statements, media incitement, and financial support for those opposed to peace might slow or even disrupt the wagon train. By adding Saudi Prince Abdullah’s peace plan as a source text for acceptance of Israel, the Quartet hope to invoke regional support endorsed by a major Muslim state. This provision should also be read in conjunction with new American pressures on both Syria and Iran to suppress support for terrorist groups harassing Israel.

Three Men

When Powell arrived in Israel on May 10th, to secure agreement to the Roadmap, he was greeted by the familiar cadences of Arab-Israeli diplomacy. These are usually a variation among “yes, but”; “maybe, but”; “no, but,” the difficulty being that sometimes “yes” means “no” and “no” means “yes.” Abu Mazen, a veteran critic of Arafat’s tendency to say all of the foregoing, got ahead of Sharon: the Palestinians accepted the Map (yes) but (very softly) reluctantly and only on condition that Israel say “yes.” Sharon, benefiting from a landslide reelection victory on January 28th that shifted Israeli politics (and his coalition) rightward, covered himself firmly in a “maybe, but.” He would give Powell a few amenities for the Palestinians but delay the main business until his meeting with Bush in Washington, scheduled for May 20th. This was cancelled, however, after five suicide bombings in forty- eight hours reminded the would-be peacemakers of the power of the terrorists. In the midst of these attacks, Sharon and Abu Mazen held their first personal exchange during which the Palestinian made clear that he needed Israeli acceptance of the Map before he could act. After a final bout of diplomacy that brought personal representatives of both leaders to see Bush, Sharon got a split Cabinet to agree to a “yes, but” formula on May 25, 2003, thereby setting the stage for the June summit.

The Israelis and Palestinians are thus poised once more to begin a peacemaking journey under the auspices of an American-led mediation. As in 1991, Washington is relying heavily upon its military victory over Iraq and the desire of both Israelis and Palestinians to move beyond their painful war of attrition. A successful passage, however, depends largely on three men: Mahmoud Abbas, Ariel Sharon, and George W. Bush. To proceed, each must clarify ambiguities about their roles.

  1. Can Abbas suppress the violence? Is the Palestinian partner truly reformed? Although a long-term associate of Arafat, Abu Mazen has clearly rejected the intifada as a method to achieve a Palestinian state. He is willing to trade the violence in order to be rescued by the Roadmap. But Abu Mazen is neither a popular politician nor yet a master of Fatah, the PLO’s political and military instrument. Arafat’s own capacity for troublemaking remains. For example, not a day after Arafat seemingly conceded to Abu Mazen on security than the ever-inventive Rais sprang a new Security Council on the Prime Minister that apparently allows him neither full control through the Interim Ministry nor a reduction to the three services specified by the Roadmap. These maneuvers can be discounted as face-saving shuffling or they can be seen as evidence that despite U.S. pressure, Arafat still holds a veto. The Quartet offers only trouble here: like the Egyptian government where Powell stopped next, the European Union and U.N. still deal openly with the Palestinian leader whose residual authority can be impressive. Powell had to meet Abu Mazen in Jericho rather than Ramallah where the still restricted Arafat had prepared a protest.

    Abu Mazen himself insists on one Authority and one law, opposes violence but prefers to deal with it through Arafat’s old method, the “hudna” or temporary truce rather than a knock-down civil war. This, of course, could give Hamas and other groups, including Fatah’s own Aksa Martyrs, a valuable breathing space from Israeli military pressure yet leave their essential support structure in place for another round. The Oslo hudnas did just that; the Palestinian Authority rarely interfered with terrorist logistics and cooperated only intermittently with Israel on preventing operations. Bush’s desire to “reform” Arafat out of business appears to have come up well short at the outset. As Powell put it on May 12th, “well, Arafat controls some, he [Abu Mazen] controls some. There is a bifurcated situation right now, which I would rather not see, but this is the way it is.” If that’s the way it will continue to be, the road will be washed away by another flood of violence.

  2. Can or will Sharon deliver on the settlements? All Israeli governments have delayed a showdown on this issue preferring to cast it into one element of an overall peace agreement. An Israeli consensus dating from Rabin’s time envisions that 80% of the settlers grouped in roughly three blocs, would be incorporated on the Israeli side of the new border. This would mean the probable end of Jewish communities living on the other side, including some of great historic resonance.

    Although Sharon’s Cabinet vote was close (12-7 with four abstentions) and he has been strongly criticized by his own party, he is clearly capable of dealing with the illegal outposts and also able to freeze expansion of those who might be on the Palestinian side of the consensus line. He has also been uncommonly bold in asserting that Israel’s “occupation” of 2.5 million Palestinians should not continue, declaring at Aqaba, “It is in Israel’s interest not to govern the Palestinians_.” Traveling the Roadmap will almost surely force him-sooner or later-to reconstruct his coalition bringing Labour into another unity government. Sharon has therefore begun the path toward his own often declared “painful concessions” by obtaining assurances from the United States that his special problems will be taken into account, notably American monitoring of the Palestinian security performance. For upon Palestinian fulfillment of obligations in this area all else depends. Bush’s promise to “fully and seriously address” Israel’s problems with the Map includes Israeli insistence that the Palestinian terrorist capabilities be dismantled, not simply stilled by a cease-fire.

  3. What will George Bush risk? How involved will he be? Who is in charge, the United States or the Quartet? The United States has tried hard to clarify these issues. At both the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting with Arab leaders (and then at Aqaba), Bush stressed his plainspoken personal commitment: “I’m the kind of person who, when I say something, I mean it. You have my commitment that I will expend the energy and effort necessary to move the process forward_. It’s the call of all religions, that each person must be free and treated with respect, and it is that call that I feel passionate about the need to move forward.” But Bush will still not be Clinton. He has taken part of the portfolio into the White House by announcing that National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice will be a “point” person. Yet, to use his own words, he will “ride herd” rather than wrestle the cows himself, a Texas turn of phrase that no doubt perplexed the Middle Easterners. More like Reagan than his father or the hyperactive Clinton, George W. Bush will not sacrifice his presidential calendar to a prolonged bout of direct negotiations. “All of us have responsibilities,” he reminded the Arab leaders, reinforcing that a day later to Sharon and Abbas. In short, Bush will act to help the parties as they negotiate with each other, hoping not to turn their diplomacy into negotiations largely with the United States.

As for the Quartet, Washington wants to duplicate the Madrid method used a decade ago: take the lead mediation because the United States is decisive but carry the rest along in a supportive role that satisfies their interests. But the Madrid method may no longer work. Arab anger at the United States and Europeans anxious to stifle Muslim antagonism by giving the Palestinians a state might turn the Quartet into a replay of the U.N. fiasco over Iraq, this time with Britain on the other side. Differences among the four are already apparent, especially on the issue of Arafat. Yet, it was Bush alone who left the G-8 meeting in France early to preside over two summits. There should be no illusions among the Quartet about who will determine the diplomacy even if there is a division of labor in assisting it.

Two States

“I’m the master of low expectations,” said Bush on his way home, “we accomplished what I hoped we’d accomplish.” Expectations may have been low yet the magnitude of the new American undertakings in the Middle East catch the breath. The United States has now committed its arms, money, and prestige to a reinvented Iraq and a not yet invented Palestine, both to be democracies at peace with themselves and their neighbors. Washington must manage the establishment of a new leadership in Baghdad and the re-engagement of the Israelis and Palestinians, all the while yoking the Quartet and influential regional states to the task. Much depends upon U.S. ability to translate its military victory over Saddam into Syrian and Iranian restraint of terrorists opposed to peace with Israel altogether. The prevailing anti-American mood among the Arabs and the continued war on terrorism make this a more than usually rough passage.

Ninety days will suffice to see whether the United States can pave a path through such a stony field so overgrown with ancient thorns. We will know in fairly short order whether the American military success in Iraq can be translated into a transformation of the Iraqi state, at least a good start on one. This will have its own impact on the Roadmap and for that matter, the War on Terrorism.

As for the Roadmap itself, it is both pre-Oslo in that it calls for the leaders to prove their commitment to each other by swallowing some poison pills and post-Oslo in that it predicates progress on Palestinian reform while hoping to avoid Oslo’s biggest error, failure to hold Arafat to his word on violence. The United States cannot afford destructive ambiguity this time around. Nor can the President allow America’s regional friends and the rest of the Quartet to veto his judgment on this score.

Inevitably, the strains of holding the parties, the Quartet itself and the regionals together will overwhelm the tidiness associated with any plan, the Roadmap included. The American hand, although a strong one, will become an increasingly lonely one. As the United States makes yet another effort to grasp the nettle, American leaders will do well to recall the essence of the peacemaking. The President’s call for a two-state solution can only be brought about if the Israeli and Palestinian leaders want it and if they can count upon the United States to reduce their risks in achieving it. Those interested in peace must hold the preponderance of power against those who oppose it. And here is the lowest but most important expectation. Progress should be measured by its improvement over the status quo. These are the only sure steps in a Middle East desperately in need of recovery from visions of violence.