Tony Blair's Consolation Prize

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The Bush announcement may have given Blair some much-needed political cover

Tony Blair may not get the UN resolution he needs to justify his support for an Iraq war, but President Bush on Friday offered him a consolation prize: A U.S. "road map" of actions required of both Israel and the Palestinians to achieve a final peace agreement within two years. The British prime minister has long pushed Washington to do more to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace in order to establish his bona fides in the Arab world, and minutes after President Bush's announcement, Blair stressed that the move would show the Western powers' "even-handedness" in dealing with the Arab world.

According to Blair, the road map will set out concrete steps required of each side according to a specific timetable and clear benchmarks. The first phase, he said, would involve concrete measures to stop terrorism and restore security cooperation between the two sides, the withdrawal of Israeli forces from all territories reoccupied since the onset of the current intifada in September 2000, and a freeze on Israeli settlement activity in the territories occupied since 1967. The road map idea is based on two linked concerns:

  • to choreograph a way out of the current standoff in which the Israelis say they can't withdraw from territory reoccupied in the current intifada because they're there to stop terror attacks, while the Palestinian Authority says it can't rebuild its institutions and resume security control as long as the Israeli military occupies its towns and cities; and
  • to set a clearly defined end goal and schedule for any negotiating process, rather than leaving it open-ended.

    The announcement gives Blair political cover for dealing with those in his own party who fear the consequences of Britain joining the U.S. in invading an Arab country. It may also be aimed at making life a little easier for Arab regimes, such as Saudi Arabia, that oppose an Iraq war but look set to cooperate with the U.S. Thursday, for example, the Pentagon announced it would deploy cruise-missile bearing warships to the Red Sea, allowing their missiles to reach Iraq via Saudi airspace rather than Turkish airspace. Turkey has not yet agreed to allow its airspace to be used for missile strikes on Iraq; the clear implication of the move is that the U.S. expects no such obstacles from Saudi Arabia.

    If the road map concept is pursued, the Bush administration may be faced with some tough choices in relation to its close alliance with Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. Sharon insists that discussing the terms of Palestinian statehood, withdrawing Israeli troops from Palestinian towns and restricting settlement activity can only begin once violence has ended. That may no longer be possible if the road map is to be pursued: While it will likely take extensive account of Sharon's security concerns, a road map will also require him to sign on to timetables and specifics of Palestinian statehood and ending settlement activities. That's an uncomfortable place for a prime minister who has long championed Israeli settlement of the occupied territories, and whose party only last year reaffirmed its opposition to a Palestinian state anywhere between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.

    Although U.S., Israeli and European diplomats — as well as many Palestinians — have welcomed the emergence of a more democratically accountable and antiterrorist leadership around Prime Minister-designate Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen), nobody is expecting that he'll be willing to accept less than a settlement based on a modified version of the 1967 borders. Sharon, who fought tooth and nail against the Oslo peace process, has, until now, signaled that he has no intention of offering anything close to that — indeed, Israeli analysts believe Sharon's idea of Palestinian statehood doesn't extend much beyond a modified version of the 40-50 percent of the West Bank and Gaza currently under the nominal control of the Palestinian Authority. And his current right-wing coalition government is committed to the internal expansion of Israel's current settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

    Whether it is pursued by suicide bombers and soldiers or by diplomats and negotiators, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is fundamentally a battle for control over land. And unless the map indicates clear guidelines on how the two sides are to share the land over which they've shed so much blood, it will be a road to nowhere. The major question concerning the road map is how it will describe the endpoint of the negotiating process. President Bush in his announcement said the road map would "set forth a sequence of steps toward the goals I set out on June 24th, 2002." In that speech, strongly influenced by Secretary of State Colin Powell, Bush affirmed UN Resolution 242 as the basis for a settlement. Long a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy, the resolution holds that the basis for Israeli-Arab peace is Israeli withdrawal from territories seized in 1967 in exchange for peace and security. But there have been visible divisions in the Bush administration over the terms of peace, and Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld, deputy defense secretary Douglas Feith, White House Mideast policy chief Elliot Abrams and others have expressed reservations about the idea of Israel giving up the West Bank and Gaza. The question is, which Bush administration shows up in the road map? And how much political capital it is willing to risk in pressing the parties to make the journey?