Can Powell Save the Roadmap?

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A long weekend ahead: Powell discusses the roadmap

When Secretary of State Colin Powell visits the Middle East this weekend he'll be trying to launch the Bush roadmap, which currently consists of little more than statements of good intention and inconclusive talks over what actions will follow. The Palestinians have unconditionally embraced the roadmap, but have thus far failed to deliver even a limited cease-fire agreement to halt ongoing terror attacks, much less on the dismantling of militias and terrorist organizations demanded by Israel and the U.S. The Israeli response has been more conditional, and just last week Ariel Sharon's government launched an all-out war on Hamas even as Palestinian Authority prime minister Mahmoud Abbas pursued cease-fire talks with the organization. Abbas has failed so far to persuade even the militants of his own Fatah faction to sign on to a cease-fire, much less the Islamist opposition.

Last week's wave of terror attacks and Israeli assassination strikes which together killed some 50 people on both sides underscored the impotence of the Arafat appointee who improbably carries U.S. hopes of pacifying the Palestinian street. Sharon didn't help matters when he publicly derided his Palestinian counterpart as a "featherless chick" who needed Israel to do his dirty work for him — a perception already shared by many Palestinians.

To put it mildly, the roadmap process is not going well.

The initiative launched two weeks ago was envisaged — at least by the White House — as a new chapter in which the U.S. would chaperon Israel and a new Palestinian leadership down a path of sequential steps that would end with a Palestinian State living peaceably alongside Israel. But Powell and other U.S. officials sent to mediate the implementation of the roadmap have to deal with the basic weaknesses of Washington's latest script for Israeli-Palestinian peace, as well as the unlikely cast of characters responsible for bringing it to life.

The roadmap was initiated more than a year ago by diplomats engaged in the region as a response to the failure of previous cease-fire initiatives. It sought to strengthen the chances for a truce by tying a cease-fire directly to a quick and sure march towards Palestinian statehood along the lines envisaged in the final talks between the Palestinian Authority and the government of Ehud Barak in their final talks at Taba in January 2001. The U.S. participated in the "quartet" discussions that initially shaped the plan, but Washington moved closer to Sharon's efforts to seek a military victory and endorsed his positions demanding the sidelining of PA president Yasser Arafat as one of a number of preconditions for renewed talks.

The buildup to the Iraq invasion brought the roadmap back into the limelight, with the Bush administration promising to release it after the war in response to pressure from European and Arab allies who openly or tacitly backed the U.S. on Iraq but needed political cover. And after the war, President Bush made good on his promise. Many saw the document as deeply flawed. For one thing, despite being referred to as a "map," it fails even in the most general terms to specify the boundaries of the two-state separation that is its ostensible destination. But it does contain essential declarations of principle and, even more importantly, signals a new era of engagement by the only outside power capable of significantly influencing events on the ground in the region.

The Israelis and Palestinians haven't been entirely enthusiastic. Even the moderates around Abbas have few illusions about the kind of peace deal they'll get from Sharon, but they believe the armed intifada is a dead-end that ruins Palestinian chances of achieving statehood, and that their only hope is to restore their standing in Washington and among the Israeli public. They know Sharon will offer something way short of the draft agreement that had been on the table at Taba, but they also believe that Palestinian suicide bombers have terrorized the Israeli electorate into electing and reelecting the aging hawk. By setting out along the roadmap, and getting at least as far as a working cease-fire, they hope they can persuade the Israeli electorate to once again elect a Labor Party leader more willing than Sharon to cede all or most of the West Bank and Gaza.

Sharon's concerns are similar. He has made clear that he is negotiating not with the Palestinians, but with the U.S. Having proclaimed President Bush as Israel's best-ever friend in the White House, Sharon wants to avoid creating diplomatic difficulties for an administration whose stake in the Middle East has grown exponentially since it took possession of Iraq. At the same time, Sharon is keenly aware of the strongly pro-Likud sentiment of the hawkish faction of the Bush administration, which together with the overwhelming support on Capitol Hill for his own policies has given him the freedom to cherry-pick U.S. positions. Even his embrace of the roadmap has been partial and conditional, and he claims to have achieved understandings with Washington that issues such as the settlement freeze — which Sharon finds politically difficult as one of the founding fathers of the movement to settle Israeli civilians on lands occupied in 1967 but never annexed — will be dealt with separately in talks between the U.S. and Israel. Sharon has agreed to dismantle a dozen settlement outposts built without government authorization in recent years, but he has fudged the requirement that all settlements built since March 2001 — reported to number some 200 — be dismantled during Phase 1 of the roadmap, and has promised his constituents that existing settlements will be strengthened.

Having won U.S. backing for his insistence that a Palestinian crackdown on terrorism remains the top priority, Sharon feels little pressure to commit on issues such as settlements. Abbas has shown scant ability thus far to deliver any reduction in terror. A number of Israeli commentators even speculated on whether the Israeli military's attempt last week to assassinate the Number 2 political leader of Hamas was intended to make life even more difficult for Abbas. Not that the Palestinian prime minister was making much progress. Hamas had broken off talks with Abbas even before the latest Israeli assassination strikes, and launched new attacks in concert with militants from both Fatah and Islamic Jihad. Those talks have since resumed, but have yet to produce a cease-fire agreement. And Israel has made clear that while it will indulge a cease-fire for now, it insists on dismantling of the organizations that have mounted terror attacks — an option unlikely to be acceptable to groups who remain far stronger and more popular on the streets of the West Bank and Gaza than Abbas.

After two weeks of the roadmap process, there's a tacit acknowledgment of the limits of Abbas's own authority. Yasser Arafat plainly remains in charge of the PA, and his endorsement remains essential if Abbas is to have even a remote chance of delivering on the security requirements of the "roadmap." Tuesday's reports that Israel is considering freeing Marwan Barghouti — the West Bank Fatah leader accused by Israel of running the movement's militias and terror groups — is a further indicator that those orchestrating the roadmap process are aware that the only workable cease-fire is one endorsed by those who are doing the fighting. The release of Barghouti would be the strongest signal yet that Sharon intends to help Abbas enforce a cease-fire.

While Abbas has been willing to the be the Palestinian leader Washington wants him to be, others ranging from Arafat and Barghouti to the leaders of Hamas are likely to be guided more by the sentiment of the Palestinian street. That's a double-edged sword. If Hamas's terror attacks are perceived to be imperiling Palestinians' chances of resuming their working lives, pressure will mount on the organization to suspend such attacks. At the same time, however, the flurry of diplomatic talks have thus far had little impact on the lives of ordinary Palestinians struggling under the chokehold of military occupation while settlements and Sharon's "security fence" encroach on more and more of their territory. Ultimately, the actions of Hamas, and possibly other militant groups, will be dictated primarily by how they read the Palestinian mood. Which may be why the idea of an international, or U.S. peacekeeping force to separate the Israelis and Palestinians is suddenly cropping up in the Middle East headlines every other day.

That option, however, is not in Powell's toolbox. His job this weekend will be to turn the optimistic phrases of Aqaba into a working peace agreement. And it's an unenviable one.