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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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.