The Magazine

The Road Map to Nowhere

Do we really need another doomed Mideast peace process?

Mar 31, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 28 • By JOSHUA MURAVCHIK
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THREE DAYS before abandoning diplomatic activity about Iraq in the U.N. Security Council and delivering an ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, President Bush hastily invited reporters to the White House Rose Garden, where he announced a further initiative for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The president said that immediately upon the confirmation of a Palestinian prime minister, his government would formally present to the two sides the "road map" for peace that it had "developed...in close cooperation" with Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations--the other members of the so-called "quartet" that the administration has chosen as its new vehicle for Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy.

The announcement, which news reports said had originally been planned to follow the resolution of the Iraq issue, apparently was moved forward in order to give succor to those, especially British prime minister Tony Blair, who had gone out on a limb to support American policy toward Iraq. "Mr. Blair and others have demanded publication of the peace plan to quell the anger throughout the Arab world over the Bush administration's perceived focus on Iraq to the exclusion of the creation of a Palestinian state, the cause the Arabs consider paramount," explained the New York Times. In careful coordination, Blair followed Bush's announcement with a press statement of his own in which he declared, "The most important thing we can do is show even-handedness towards the Middle East." This formula, which Blair repeated more than once, apparently meant giving the Israeli-Palestinian question as much attention as Iraq. It may also have been intended to imply an approach of neutrality between the Israelis and the Palestinians, in contrast to the pro-Israel stance that the Arabs say Washington has usually taken.

Although the timing of the announcement seemed to have been improvised, it had long been expected that an Iraq war would be linked in some way to renewed activity on the Israeli-Palestinian front. President Bush had said in his February 26 speech to the American Enterprise Institute that "success in Iraq could also begin a new stage for Middle Eastern peace and set in motion progress toward a truly democratic Palestinian state." From a rather different perspective, Arab and European commentators have claimed that after taking down Saddam, the United States would have to compensate the Muslim world for this intrusion by assuring progress toward Palestinian independence.

That is the destination to which the road map is supposed to lead. But what is in this road map? What are its underlying premises? And will it get us to peace?

Three early drafts of the road map have made their way into the public prints, and administration spokesmen say that the final draft will vary little from the last of these, circulated in December. To reach the president's declared objective of the birth of a Palestinian state within three years, the map lays out detailed sets of reciprocal obligations grouped into three phases. In the first phase, to be accomplished within a few months, the Palestinians would "undertake an unconditional cessation of violence" (to quote from the December draft) as well as "comprehensive political reform . . . including drafting a Palestinian constitution and free, fair and open elections." The Palestinians would also resume security cooperation with Israel. For its part, Israel would withdraw from all Palestinian areas it entered since the start of the intifada, freeze all settlement activity, dismantling the "settlement outposts" erected since Ariel Sharon came to office, and "take...all necessary steps to help normalize Palestinian life."

In the second phase, to last six months, "efforts are focused on . . . creating an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders and attributes of sovereignty . . . as a way station to a permanent status settlement." This would be blessed by an international conference convened by the quartet. And it would be accompanied by steps by the Arab states to "restore pre-intifada links to Israel." During this time, the quartet would "promote international recognition of [the] Palestinian state, including possible U.N. membership." In the third phase, lasting two years and featuring still another international conference convened by the quartet, a "final and comprehensive settlement" would be "negotiated between the parties . . . that ends the occupation that began in 1967" and "fulfills the vision of two states, Israel and the sovereign, independent, democratic and viable Palestine, living side-by-side in peace and security." This would be accompanied by "a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace."

Two critical premises lie behind this plan. The first is that the shape of an ultimate settlement is clear. It will look like the terms discussed at Taba, Egypt, in January 2001, the last-ditch negotiation undertaken during the waning days of Bill Clinton's presidency and Ehud Barak's tenure as Israel's prime minister. In this view, what is lacking is a choreography to get us to a final act the outcome of which is already known. The second premise is that this choreography requires an intermediary more balanced than the United States, whose seven-year mediation efforts under the Oslo accords were crowned with failure at Camp David in the summer of 2000. Hence, the primary role now assigned to the quartet, which is less reflexively pro-Israel than America.

The first thing one might say about the plan itself is that its pace is breathless. Comprehensive political reform, a new constitution, free elections--all within the first few months? Never mind that this seems unrealistic. (We are now 19 years past the deadline for Palestinian self-rule set in the Egypt-Israel peace agreement of 1979 and four years past the date for completing "final status" talks under the Oslo accords.) It is even undemocratic. Aren't the citizens of Palestine entitled to a little time to acquaint themselves with their new political system, not to mention to assent to it, to discover what the offices are for which they will vote, to form political parties, to debate the issues? From there, we press on frantically to sovereignty within a few more months and a complete laying to rest of the Arab-Israeli conflict by 2005. Inshallah. There is no disgrace in a rush to peace, provided one's hurry does not result in losing one's way.

There is, however, an important problem here. Postmortems of Oslo, notably by the chief U.S. negotiator, Dennis Ross, have focused on America's failure to insist on full compliance with the terms of the agreement, especially on the part of the Palestinians, a failure that was driven by the pressure to meet predetermined timetables. Precisely to avoid repetition of this mistake, the Bush administration has characterized the road map as "performance driven." But that is scarcely compatible with a breakneck dash around the map's multiple clover leaves.

THE MOST PENETRATING analysis of this dizzying racecourse has been offered by Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Satloff faults the plan's "sham, even indecent, parallelism between Palestinian and Israeli behavior." Not only does it call on each side, in virtually identical language, to "cease violence" against the other, as if acts of terror and counterterror are commensurable. It also balances a demand that "official Palestinian institutions end incitement against Israel" with one that "official Israeli institutions end incitement against Palestinians."

The issue of incitement is not about "mere words." It goes to the heart of prospects for peace. In trading land for peace, Israel wants to be sure it is getting what is promised, namely a Palestinian neighbor committed to respecting its existence. Nothing did more to sabotage Oslo than Arafat's ambiguity on this score, his own continued references to "jihad," and the hatred, denigration, and delegitimation of Israel that permeated the Palestinian Authority's state-controlled news media, textbooks, maps, and what-have-you. Nothing comparable ever issued from the Israeli government. The road map's designers apparently feared it would be insulting to the Palestinians to allude to their incitement without saying something equivalent toward Israel, however baseless. But to treat the issue of incitement in such a cavalier fashion bodes ill for the process.

Satloff also points out that there is something dangerously naive in the road map's assumption that the situation prior to the outbreak of violence can or should be readily restored. In fact, he points out,

the status quo ante was itself deeply flawed, i.e., the infrastructure for illegal smuggling and manufacture of weaponry was well established; the commingling of terrorist organizations and Palestinian security forces was deeply entrenched; and the preparations for armed uprising were well advanced, as evidenced by the testimony of senior Palestinian officials. Rolling back the clock without addressing the organic problems at the heart of Oslo . . . is a surefire way to guarantee that the road map will share Oslo's fate.

One particularly notable aspect of the status quo ante was the primacy of Yasser Arafat. President Bush's landmark speech of June 24, 2002, called for "a new and different Palestinian leadership . . . not compromised by terror." But Blair, in his orchestrated echo of Bush's March 14 road map statement, also announced that he himself had just called Arafat to discuss the plan. Linking the official presentation of the road map to the appointment of a Palestinian prime minister is supposed to help erode Arafat's power. But it is Arafat who has appointed Mahmoud Abbas, and whether the latter will prove to be a lever for shunting Arafat aside or merely a pair of gloves to cover Arafat's terror-stained hands remains to be seen.

Beyond such flaws in specific provisions that could be amended in subsequent versions, the critical question is whether the plan's premises are sound. Is it true, for one thing, that the quartet makes a fairer broker of this quarrel than America? To be sure, U.S. policy is pro-Israel, in the sense of a strong commitment to Israel's survival and generous foreign aid. But Washington has often sided with the Arabs and clashed with Israel. It forced Israel to abandon its gains in the 1956 Sinai war, did nothing to break Egypt's blockade of Israeli shipping leading to the Six Day War, stayed Israel's hand in the Yom Kippur and Lebanon wars, rescued Arafat from Beirut, staunchly opposed Israeli settlements in the territories captured in 1967, refused to move its embassy to Israel's capital lest this offend the Arabs, voted for numerous anti-Israel resolutions in the Security Council such as one condemning the 1981 destruction of Iraq's nuclear reactor and another condemning only Israel's actions in the early days of the current intifada, intervened none too subtly in 1999 to encourage the election of the dovish Ehud Barak as prime minister over the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu, and, under Clinton, hosted Yasser Arafat at the White House more often than any other foreign leader. In short, although linked strongly to Israel, the United States has gone to lengths to honor the interests and demands of the other side.

No such fair-mindedness can be ascribed to the other players in the quartet. Ironically, Russia, which has developed friendly relations with Israel despite oil interests in the Arab world and personal links that stretch back to Soviet days, may be the most neutral. But the E.U. is more one-sidedly pro-Palestinian than America is pro-Israel. Its copious aid to the Palestinian Authority, according to the German newspaper Die Welt, has made "Palestine" the world's largest per capita recipient of foreign aid. And during the Israeli incursion into the cities of the West Bank last spring, the European parliament voted for economic sanctions against Israel, as indeed had been applied by the E.U. (or its predecessor) on previous occasions, such as during the war in Lebanon in 1982 or the first intifada in the mid 1980s. These are the same European lawmakers who have denounced America's sanctions on Libya, Iran, and Cuba. In this instance, the European Commission declined to impose the sanctions, but individual E.U. countries applied some themselves, while Belgian courts indicted Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, all amidst a firestorm of anti-Israel invective in the European press that frequently crossed the line to outright anti-Semitism.

As for the U.N., its bias against Israel is notorious. Representation on the Security Council and other U.N. bodies is chosen by region. Israel, however, is the only U.N. state that has not been allowed membership in any regional body. Recently, U.S. pressure resulted in Israel's inclusion in the so-called Western Europe and Others Group that we belong to, but only on condition that Israel not be eligible for nomination to the Security Council. Israel has likewise never served on the U.N. Human Rights Commission, although it has scarcely been neglected by that body. On the contrary, during its most recent meeting, the UNHRC adopted no fewer than eight resolutions castigating Israel, while adopting no more than one on any other country and none whatsoever concerning the large majority of the world's dictators. Among the eight resolutions on Israel was one that endorsed the Palestinians' right to fight for their cause "by all available means, including armed struggle," which implicitly meant suicide bombings. (Six of the nine E.U. members of the body voted for this.) Meanwhile, in the General Assembly last year, no fewer than 40 percent of the few hundred resolutions put to a vote were also devoted to the denunciation of Israel. As if this were not enough, the U.N. maintains three permanent bodies devoted exclusively to Israel- bashing. They are the Division for Palestinian Rights of the U.N. Secretariat, the Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices in the Territories, and the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. A less suitable intermediary would be hard to invent.

The quartet itself, according to the New York Times, was the creation of Terje Roed-Larsen, the U.N. special envoy to the Middle East, who proclaimed last year that "the government of Israel has lost all moral ground in this conflict," by which statement, so one would have thought, he lost all moral ground as a negotiator.

THE STILL DEEPER FLAW in the road map's premises is the presumption that with the terms of settlement fairly apparent, all that is needed is a guide for getting there. In the final analysis, however, the missing ingredient for peace between Israel and the Palestinians is not a blueprint of the destination, nor is it the route. The missing ingredient is a decision by the Palestinians and the other Arabs to accept the existence of a Jewish state in their midst and to live in permanent peace with it. Despite all the Palestinians have suffered these two and a half years, public opinion polls show that a clear majority of them support continuing the intifada and suicide bombing and that about half say that the goal should be the "total liberation of Palestine," in other words, the elimination of Israel. The other half of the Palestinians say they want a two-state solution. When that half grows and becomes dominant, then and only then, will real peace be possible.

Since the Six Day War, the critical divide in international approaches to the Arab-Israeli broil has been between a negotiated settlement and an imposed one. Israel has insisted on the former precisely because it wants a settlement to be more than pro forma. In an imposed settlement, the Arab representatives might make some empty prescribed gestures in return for concessions that could facilitate future efforts to destroy Israel. An example of such a gesture was the statement that Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister, wrote and induced Arafat to issue denouncing the suicide bombing of the Dolphinarium disco that killed two dozen Israeli teenagers in June 2001. A month later, the parents of the attacker proudly showed German television interviewers a letter from Arafat proclaiming their son a "martyr" and "a model of manhood and sacrifice for Allah and the homeland."

That an imposed settlement is precisely what our European partners in the quartet have in mind was made abundantly clear by their response to Bush's announcement of the road map. The president said that upon its delivery to the parties "we will expect and welcome contributions from Israel and the Palestinians to this document." This evoked anguished reactions. The New York Times quoted one "Western diplomat" as complaining that "it's not meant to be a negotiated document," while the Washington Post cited "a senior European diplomat" who said: "When we negotiated it, the idea was to impose the road map, not to put it on the table." Who will prevail within the quartet remains to be seen, but the road map itself, with its dozens of sequenced prescribed steps, smacks more of an imposed than a negotiated settlement.

The simple reality is that the moment the Palestinians make a wholehearted turn toward peace, no road map will be necessary. Sadat had no such guide. His historic trip to Jerusalem was a sequence of improvisations. But when he addressed the Knesset and demonstrated his acceptance of Israel with palpable sincerity, he got back every inch of the Sinai and other demands as well. The territorial issues in the West Bank are more complex, and the Palestinians are not likely to get every inch, but a dramatic demonstration of willingness to accept Israel and live in peace would elicit sweeping concessions. Sharon has said he is willing to make painful compromises, but in response to such a gesture from the Palestinians, the Israeli public would insist on going further than Sharon probably has in mind to do. What would such a gesture look like? There is no need for outsiders to write a script. When the feeling is sincere, it will be easy enough to convey. Until it comes, even the most carefully crafted road maps will lead nowhere.

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of "Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism."