Why Powell's 'Roadmap' Mission Underwhelmed Mideast

  • Share
  • Read Later
That Colin Powell emerged relatively empty-handed from his Mideast trip to promote the U.S. peace "roadmap" is no reflection on the Secretary of State's powers of persuasion — it's simply a reminder of the limits of the "roadmap" concept in the face of the situation on the ground in Israel and the Palestinian territories, and, of course, in Washington. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declined, at this stage, to endorse the "roadmap" that requires a sequence of steps by each side designed to achieve a Palestinian state living peacefully alongside Israel within three years. Sharon may, of course, be saving that for his May 20 meeting with President Bush at the White House, but he's also insisting that the Palestinian Authority mount a concerted campaign against terrorism and renounce any claim by Palestinian refugees to return to Israel as preconditions for political dialogue. Israel did, however, agree to release some Palestinian prisoners and ease some restrictions on Palestinians traveling to jobs inside Israel as gestures aimed at restarting dialogue. More importantly, perhaps, Sharon also agreed to meet with Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas next Friday, and talks between Israeli and Palestinian security officials have begun in secret over restoring security cooperation against terror attacks. Abbas, for his part, vowed to stamp out terror and embraced the "roadmap," but complained of Israel's failure to do the same (and, by extension, of Washington's reluctance to pressure Sharon to do so).

The Bush administration putting pressure on Israel to settle with the Palestinians — as the first Bush administration did followings its victory over Iraq — is an unlikely scenario, at best. This Bush administration is sharply divided over the very principle of Israel withdrawing from the West Bank and Gaza as a means of securing peace, and despite President Bush promising Tony Blair that he would engage passionately in the pursuit of Middle East piece in the wake of Saddam's ouster, putting pressure on Israel is not a natural choice for a Republican president a year away from his reelection campaign, with his political base (and much of his national security administration) solidly in the Sharon camp.

Sharon's reading of U.S. domestic politics, and his close relationship with the Bush White House, leaves him relatively comfortable in playing hard-to-get even on President Bush's own "roadmap" — or at least, in cherry picking his favorite bits and ignoring the more distasteful aspects.

Neither side, of course, will have been surprised at the contents of the "roadmap" — its prescriptions for reviving the peace process are essentially a collation of recommendations in the Mitchell Report, the Tenet "work plan" and the Zinni cease-fire proposals. Two years of truce initiatives have come to naught, and if anything, the conflict is even more intractable now. The "roadmap" concept may be an attempt to bridge Israeli and Palestinian concerns by linking a cease-fire to a "political horizon" for Palestinian statehood, but it contains no new magic formula for resolving the basic standoff over security.

Right now, Israel is the effective security authority in most West Bank towns and cities, having reoccupied them in the hope of stopping a relentless wave of suicide bombings inside Israel-proper. The Palestinians say they can't reconstitute their shattered security services as long as Israeli maintains a stranglehold on their turf, and argue that an Israeli withdrawal is a prerequisite for a crackdown on terrorism. But Sharon is in no mood to accept half-measures, and insists that Israel will deal only with a Palestinian Authority willing to disarm the Palestinian organizations that carry out terror attacks — Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Fatah-based Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. Palestinian Prime Minister Abbas insists that he plans to eliminate "armed chaos" in PA territory by establishing and strictly enforcing a monopoly of force in the hands of the Authority itself (as required by the Oslo agreements). But he's also made clear that he intends to do so by negotiating a cease-fire with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Brigades, rather than forcibly disarming them — and that's unacceptable to the Israelis.

The odds against Abbas are immense. The reason he prefers dialogue to confrontation with the Palestinian militant groups is that he wants to avoid a civil war in the Palestinian territories that he may well lose. And the radicals are in no mood to listen, having vowed to fight to keep their weapons. Hamas is far more popular now than it was in 1996 when Yasser Arafat's administration successfully cracked down on the organization to stop a wave of suicide bombing, and Abbas's has to contend with the fact that today, his own Fatah movement has a militant armed wing of its own, which has vowed to stand alongside the Islamists in defying disarmament. Add to that the fact of ongoing Israeli security operations stoking popular outrage among Palestinians, and the fact that Abbas has no substantive political support base of his own, and the task before him appears Herculean. Then there's a certain Mr. Arafat, whom Washington is trying to wish away, but who remains more powerful than Mr. Abbas — and has considerable incentive to ensure that the prime minister fails, because the Israelis and Americans have made clear that success for Abbas equals oblivion for Arafat.

If Abbas were to succeed, of course, Sharon might be in the difficult position of being forced to tip his hand on issues such as the fate of the settlements and the borders of a Palestinian state. Despite his mantra of readiness to make "painful compromises," Sharon's entire political career has been built championing the settlement movement, and nobody's expecting him to come close to offering a political deal even close to the minimum acceptable for Abbas, or any other Palestinian or Arab leader. But Sharon can rest easy that the domestic political situation in the Palestinian territories and in Washington are such that he won't be called to put his cards on the table any time soon.