Tel Aviv Terror Challenges the "Roadmap"

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Israeli policemen search the scene after a suicide bomb explosion in a Tel Aviv pub

A single suicide bomber Wednesday reminded the world that a new Palestinian prime minister, a U.S.-backed "roadmap" to peace and recent dovish statements from the Israelis are simply the new packaging on a familiar stalemate. The bomber, reportedly sent by Hamas and the Al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigade, killed three Israelis and wounded scores of other in a Tel Aviv attack timed to mock new Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas's promise, in a speech only hours earlier, to fight terrorism and disarm the likes of Hamas and the Al-Aqsa brigades.

The election of Abbas (a.k.a. Abu Mazen) by the Palestinian Legislative Council had opened the way for the publication of the "roadmap," crafted by the U.S. in conjunction with the European Union, the UN and Russia. The document describing a series of steps required of both sides in order to realize peace and Palestinian statehood within three years was presented to Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon on Wednesday, and was due to be handed to Abbas later in the day.

The bombing was a cruel swipe at the upbeat expectations surrounding the new diplomatic initiative. Anxiety among U.S. allies over invading Iraq while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remained unsolved had produced unrealistic expectations of the impact that the release of the "roadmap" may have on the conflict's violent stalemate. The situation remains unchanged: Israel is the effective security authority in most Palestinian territories, a role it says it was forced to fill because the Palestinian Authority failed to stop terror attacks. The Israeli government will relinquish that role only once the Palestinians have demonstrated both the will and the ability to ensure Israel's security, and has no interest in discussing Palestinian statehood before that time. But Palestinian leaders say they can't properly reconstitute their security services, let alone enforce an end to attacks on Israelis as long as the Israeli military maintains its security stranglehold on Palestinian territories. That impasse has dashed every U.S.-backed cease-fire effort over the past two-and-a-half years. And it remains an imposing first hurdle on the "roadmap."

The first phase of the new peace plan envisages a cease-fire, a disarming of Palestinian militias, an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian towns and the dismantling of Israeli settlements in the West Bank built since 2001. The parties move quickly from there toward negotiating the final parameters of Palestinian statehood as early as 2005. But the map does not answer the basic question of how the two sides are to get past their inability to resolve the security standoff. The Bush administration had insisted on Abbas's confirmation as the precondition for publishing the document, but Israeli security chiefs and Palestinian political analysts tend to share a pessimistic view of the new prime minister's ability to rein in terror attacks. Palestinian security structures are in disarray, Abbas faces considerable domestic opposition even from within his own organization, and Yasser Arafat doesn't exactly have a vested interest in seeing the new prime minister succeed.

Like Arafat, Abbas has started out trying to negotiate with Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the hope of persuading them that ending terror attacks is in the wider Palestinian national interest. Having a considerably weaker political base than Arafat, Abbas is likely to be acutely aware that the path of confrontation with those groups could spark a Palestinian civil war from which the Palestinian Authority emerges even weaker. Instead, he seeks to maintain Palestinian unity on the basis of a common understanding to pursue the "roadmap" — an approach that has Israeli security chiefs warning that Abbas has no intention of forcefully dismantling "the infrastructure of terror."

Abbas's problem isn't confined to convincing the Islamists to do an about-face — the Al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigades are affiliated with Abbas and Arafat's own secular-nationalist Fatah faction, and they, too, have not bought into the idea of disarming in order to implement a "roadmap" in which they have no faith.

In order to convince, cajole and forcibly restrain Palestinians from launching attacks on Israelis, say Abbas's supporters, the new prime minister desperately needs Israel to begin withdrawing from West Bank towns and cities — both to allow the reconstituting of the official Palestinian security structures as the effective authority in those areas, and also to demonstrate that the non-violent path can bring results. But troop withdrawal may be a tall order for the Israelis as long as terror attacks continue — which they almost certainly will, since they're traditionally the preferred means by which the Islamists and other radical groups signal their rejection of new cease-fire initiatives.

The "roadmap" initiative reflects a growing sense of urgency among America's allies for the Bush administration to act decisively to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its premise is that this can be done only by achieving two basic goals — guaranteeing Israeli security, and ending Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinian leaders say Israel's security cannot be guaranteed as long as it maintains its occupation; Israeli leaders say the occupation cannot be ended while terrorists threaten Israel's security. Hence the "roadmap," reminding the two sides of what must be done in order to break out of the logjam. But if the Israelis and Palestinians prove unable or unwilling to head out along the route described in the "roadmap," the question becomes whether the international community — and the Bush administration — has a Plan B to achieve both Israeli security and Palestinian independence.