The Mideast: Can Bush Deliver?

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AFP; AP(2)

Man in the middle: Bush has put himself squarely between Sharon and Abbas

The reason Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas will meet with President Bush is the same reason the two are suddenly talking about implementing a sequence of steps designed to achieve an as-yet undefined Palestinian statehood within two years: both men know better than to cross the White House. Still, President Bush's summit with the prime ministers of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, scheduled to be held next week in Jordan, is a calculated gamble. It is designed to revive of a peace process, and realize the pledge made by President Bush to Arab and European allies ahead of the Iraq invasion that he would invest his own political capital in a renewed peace effort. And it will almost certainly raise expectations of close and consistent engagement by the Bush White House in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — a course the administration has studiously avoided until now.

Can the Palestinians Deliver?

Little has changed in the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock over the past two years. Despite some reshuffling of personnel on the Palestinian side and new language from Sharon, there is little sign thus far that the two opponents have made any progress in resolving their basic standoff over how to end terror attacks and restore Israeli security, let alone their sharply divergent visions of where the boundaries would be drawn between Israel and a Palestinian state. The change that has brought the two sides to the table now has occurred in Washington, where the Bush administration has concluded that its own Middle East agenda requires a new push to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As his cabinet debated adopting the Bush mideast peace roadmap, Sharon made it clear that although he shared many of their misgivings about the document, Israel could not afford a clash with the White House. Instead of a simple "yes," however, Israel's adoption of the roadmap took the form of a "yes, but?" Sharon claims to have won U.S. agreement to address 14 changes proposed by Israel.

Now the U.S. and Israel will expect Mahmoud Abbas to begin delivering, and Sharon has plenty of reason to doubt whether the Palestinian Authority will come through. Sharon is signaling his political base that signing on to the roadmap, in his mind, creates no obligations for Israel in terms of freezing or restricting settlement activity in the occupied territories. In Sharon's reading, no substantial steps are required of Israel until the Palestinian Authority cracks down on the organizations that send suicide terrorists into Israeli cities and mount attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. And last week's flurry of suicide bombings was a reminder of the depth of the challenge facing Prime Minister Abbas.

The new prime minister remains politically weak inside the PA as well as on the streets. PA president Yasser Arafat remains a major obstacle, particularly to the extent that the success of the roadmap is equated with his own marginalization. Arafat remains more powerful than Abbas both on the streets and inside the PA, and fear that he could be tempted to sabotage the process may be one reason European diplomats have been holding talks with him despite the boycott of Arafat by Israel and the U.S.

Abbas has also told the Israelis that the PA is powerless to act against militants as long as Israeli troops remain inside Palestinian towns and cities and assassinate suspected terrorists. Israel, however, believes such operations are vital to its own security, and may be loathe to end them — particularly when it's a safe bet that the onset of any renewed negotiations will almost certainly bring new terror attacks inside Israel, the gruesome veto typically deployed by Palestinian radicals to negate previous cease-fire efforts.

The Israelis, with the support of the Bush administration, expect a major crackdown on Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah's al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigade. But those organizations are popular on the Palestinian street, and their elimination would require nothing short of a Palestinian civil war — an eventuality Mahmoud Abbas and his government are desperate to avoid. It's far from clear that Abbas could win such a war, with or without the support of Yasser Arafat. And if at the end the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza remained surrounded by Israeli settlements and soldiers, Abbas and his team risk being seen by ordinary Palestinians as nothing more than enforcers for Israel. So Abbas's approach to the security requirements of the roadmap is to woo Hamas through negotiations into supporting a cease-fire. His new security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, is reportedly formulating plans to "rehabilitate" rank and file fighters in these organizations by buying their weapons and recruiting them to serve in the PA's own security structures. That's unlikely to impress Israel — or the U.S. Now that Israel has formally adopted the roadmap, Washington will expect to see a Palestinian "war on terror" begin immediately.

What About the Borders?

Sharon has caused something of a stir in his own camp by talking for the first time of a need to end Israel's "occupation" over the Palestinians. Israeli officials had previously avoided the O-word, and that, taken with Sharon's formal endorsement of a Palestinian state west of the river Jordan — a position at odds with the political program of his own Likud Party — has contributed to speculation of a dramatic turnabout on the part of the Israeli leader. But it might not be that dramatic. In explaining his "occupation" remark, Sharon referred specifically to Israeli control over Palestinian cities, which were reoccupied during last year's "Operation Defensive Shield." There was no indication he was using the term in the manner understood by the Palestinians and the international community to refer to the Israeli military and settler control of territories captured by Israel in 1967. Indeed, one of the references Sharon wanted struck from the roadmap document was its reference to last year's Saudi proposal to the Arab League to offer Israel peace and recognition in exchange for withdrawal to the 1967 borders.

That points to a divide possibly even more profound than the standoff over security. The endpoint of the roadmap is a Palestinian state at peace with Israel. But the document provides no outline of the borders. For the Palestinians, a final peace agreement is based on the last one offered by Ehud Barak at the Taba talks in January 2001 — a Palestinian state in all, or almost all of the West Bank and Gaza, with its capital in East Jerusalem. Although Sharon has never put all his cards on the table, he's given plenty of indicators that in his vision, a Palestinian state comprises the 40-50 percent of the West Bank currently under PA jurisdiction (and most, or all of Gaza), surrounded on all sides by the Israeli military and settlements.

Sharon has repeatedly indicated that he has no plans to evacuate settlements deep inside the West Bank, and the surest indicator of what the Israeli prime minister has in mind may be the route followed by the "separation fence" Israel is currently building, at a cost of more than $1 billion, as a device to stop terrorists infiltrating into Israel. When it was first proposed by the Labor Party, it was suggested the fence would pretty much hug the Green Line marking the 1967 border between Israel and the West Bank. Instead, reports from Israel suggest the construction of the fence is snaking deep inside the West Bank, folding in many Israeli settlements and separating Palestinian villages from their fields. It will be almost twice as long as the 200-mile Green Line, and according to the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, will essentially barricade the Palestinians into two cantons that together make up around 40 percent of the West Bank.

What Will Bush Do?

Neither Abbas, nor any other Palestinian leader, could settle for statehood only in the areas currently under Palestinian control as the endpoint of the political process. But less important than Sharon's best-case offer is the question of what the Bush administration imagines to be a fair and viable settlement. On this score, as on many other Middle Eastern matters, the administration is reportedly sharply divided. While the State Department may have been working on the assumption that the Taba offers the basis of territorial compromise, President Bush's Middle East policy coordinator Elliot Abrams has made no secret of his opposition, favoring a far more limited territorial concession by Israel. The outcome of the internal battles in the Bush administration may yet prove decisive in determining the prospects for getting to the end of the "roadmap." That is, of course, if the journey is actually begun.

As much as the administration may be hoping that next week's summit provides the spur that gets Israelis and Palestinians to work on resolving their problems bilaterally, every indication thus far is that every inch of progress along the "roadmap" will require considerable prodding from Washington. And making himself indispensable to a long-shot Middle East peace process on the eve of a U.S. presidential election season may carry considerable political and diplomatic risk for the White House.