Can Bush Save His Roadmap?

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Monday a Palestinian detonated explosives at a mall in Afula, Israel

President Bush insisted Tuesday that his Middle East peace roadmap "still stands," despite five Palestinian terror attacks in 48 hours. But the latest violence and continuing stalemate between Israeli and Palestinian leaders over how or whether to proceed has been a stark reminder that what the roadmap stands for right now is little more than a statement of the good intentions of its authors. The opportunity for peace the President had confidently predicted would follow Saddam Hussein's ouster has failed to materialize, the situation on the ground is no different than it was before the invasion, and the absence of cash handouts from Saddam for their families appears to have done little to discourage young Palestinians from volunteering for suicide-terror missions. Israel, for its part, is continuing to pursue security through closures and invasions of Palestinian territories and assassinations of militants. In the three weeks since the roadmap was published more than 50 Palestinians and a dozen Israelis have been killed. That has left President Bush weighing a politically risky trip to the region to jumpstart a process that may be stillborn without more muscular U.S. intervention.

Even before the latest rash of suicide attacks, the Palestinian leadership had adopted the roadmap, but insisted they can't take any steps to implement it before Israel also signs on. But Israel wants President Bush to make a number of substantial changes and insists the priority is the ongoing terror threat and the failure of the Palestinian Authority to confront it. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has made clear he has no interest in embarking on a road to Palestinian statehood as long as violence continues.

New Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas says Israel's security tactics make it impossible for him to disarm terror groups, and that no Palestinian leader can wage a campaign against militants unless Palestinians can be shown that such a crackdown would lead inexorably to statehood and an end to Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. All of this, of course, is familiar ground. The Bush administration had hoped that twisting Yasser Arafat's arm to appoint Abbas would somehow break the logjam, but when Sharon met with Abbas and senior PA figures last Saturday, the change of faces on the Palestinian side of the table had not changed the basic stalled conversation.

The latest wave of terror attacks is a graphic illustration of Abbas's political weakness, both on the Palestinian street and in the Palestinian Authority. Abbas has minimal standing among ordinary Palestinians, and Arafat is actively using his greater influence in the PA to ensure he fails — hardly surprising since the U.S. has made clear that Abbas's success would mean oblivion for the aging Palestinian leader. But this is far more than a personality clash between Arafat and Abbas: If it were that simple, Israel's intelligence chiefs would not be warning Sharon's government against any move to expel Arafat from the West Bank in response to the latest attacks. Arafat's personal agenda may be helped by the defiance of Palestinian militant groups who refuse to be disarmed by Abbas, but their hard line is not of his making — it was previously directed against his own efforts to enforce a cease-fire. The Palestinian militants who have been waging the intifada don't see any point in pursuing the roadmap, which in its prescriptions for the initial phases is simply a reiteration of the major cease-fire initiatives of the past two years (which require that the militants be disarmed), but is deliberately vague on issues such as the eventual borders of a Palestinian state. In the absence of a clear political horizon that ends the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, Abbas is struggling to find support for the crackdown on militant organizations being urged on him by Israel and the Bush administration.

Sharon, for his part, has studiously avoided tipping his own hand, preferring to discuss only the security questions and hinting vaguely at his willingness to make "painful concessions" once all Palestinian violence has ended, while at the same time as signaling his right-wing political base that he has no intention of evacuating a single settlement. Despite the clear divergence with the U.S. position, Sharon has studiously avoided conflict with the White House, although where such conflict has arisen he has relied on the U.S. domestic political equation and the divisions within the Bush administration to walk Washington towards his positions. So Sharon hasn't rejected the roadmap out of hand, but has instead made clear his intention to seek a large number of "modifications" despite earlier U.S. statements that the package is not negotiable.

The roadmap has no takers, then, unless the President is prepared to get more directly involved and frog-march the two sides down the road. That's exactly what he promised such key Iraq-coalition partners as Britain and Spain, as well as Arab allies who openly or quietly backed the invasion. It may be what aides most concerned about Washington's global alliances are urging him to do. But pressuring Sharon to do anything he's not inclined to do at a time when Israel is facing terror attacks risks alienating two key domestic political constituencies — the traditional Jewish pro-Israel lobby, and even more importantly, the Christian conservative movement whose own Zionist ideology is hostile to the idea of Israel swapping land for peace. The eve of a reelection campaign may be a tough moment for a U.S. President to get involved in the politically risky and typically unrewarding pursuit of Middle East peace, no matter how loudly the Europeans and Arabs protest. Even if he takes the bold step of visiting the region for the first time in his presidency, Mr. Bush may find, like his predecessor did, that the force of his personality and presence alone is insufficient to bridge the gap between the two sides on the ground — which may be why some of his top aides are reportedly counseling against such a trip. And if, as a number of old Middle East diplomatic hands have suggested, it may require an intervention significantly stronger than the roadmap initiative to restart a peace process, it's a relatively safe bet that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will remain stalemated at least until after November 2004.