Tony Karon's Weblog: Bush's Looming 'Roadmap' Headache

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President Bush may imagine that his "roadmap" initiative has brought Israel and the Palestinians together to negotiate their way a long-term peace agreement, but people in the region know better: They're looking to Washington for the signs of what will come next. That's because discussions between the two sides have yielded little progress, and President Bush will be called upon to prescribe the next step to each when he meets Friday with Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas, and then next week with Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. The Israelis and Palestinians are not really negotiating with each other; each is negotiating with the Bush Administration.

To be sure, there has certainly been some progress in the situation since the "roadmap" was launched in June — the past month has been the most peaceful since the armed intifada began in September 2000; Israel has withdrawn troops from part of Gaza and the Bethlehem area, and made a few symbolic gestures in respect of settlement outposts built without government permission. But in terms of many of the key requirements of the first phase of the "roadmap" — a Palestinian campaign to disarm and dismantle groups that have waged the terror campaign; Israeli easing of Palestinian living conditions, dismantling settlement outposts built since March 2001 and freezing construction in all those built in the West Bank and Gaza since 1967 — progress has been negligible.

Moreover, most of what has been achieved has occurred outside of the "roadmap" framework. The relative calm of the past month is a product not of negotiations between Sharon and Abbas, but of the "hudna" agreement that Abbas and Arab governments, particularly Egypt, managed to persuade Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the militants of Fatah to sign. Sharon, for his part, insists that his actions on the settlements are not dictated by the "roadmap" at all, but by a separate agreement between himself and President Bush.

It's not hard to see that in both instances, such agreements may actually work at cross-purposes to the "roadmap" plan: The Palestinian militant groups are hardly likely to maintain a truce with the Palestinian Authority if it launches a drive to disarm and dismantle them; and if Sharon is claiming Bush's backing for his own interpretation of the settlement issue (and the White House has yet to contradict him), then the credibility of the "roadmap" itself is at stake.

But the reason the real business appears to be being conducted outside of the "roadmap" framework may be some of the weaknesses of the framework itself. For example, the Bush Administration may have convinced itself that Prime Minister Abbas is now the leader of the Palestinians and that Yasser Arafat no longer counts. But no one in the Middle East believes that Abbas is really the leader of the Palestinians — not the Israelis, not the Palestinians or their Arab neighbors, and certainly not Mr. Abbas himself. Indeed, that's an integral part of the message Abbas will bring to the White House on Friday: That unless Washington puts pressure on Israel to grant more concessions on prisoner-releases and other issues, Abbas's government will collapse. And Arafat will not shed any tears; he'll simply appoint a new prime minister.

Prisoner-releases, of course, are not covered by the "roadmap," but they are at the heart of the "hudna." Hamas has warned that unless Israel releases the estimated 6,000 Palestinian militants currently in Israeli prisons, there will be no "hudna." And Abbas's own message is that without such concessions by Israel, there will be no Abbas, either.

He's appealing to the White House because his efforts to sway Sharon on this question have been fruitless. Israel plans to release up to 520 prisoners, including some members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But that's only 10 percent of the total number, and Israel is making clear it won't release anyone convicted of killing Israelis, and will act gradually as it sees Abbas cracking down on those organizations. That's unlikely to be enough for the militants, and may therefore not be enough for Abbas, who insists that prisoner-release is the single most important means of establishing his credibility on a Palestinian street that believes the Palestinians have gained nothing, thus far, in exchange for their cease-fire.

The Bush Administration, recognizing that Abbas has no independent political base among Palestinians, is sympathetic to the need to build up his standing, and has, at Abbas's behest, urged Israel to cease construction of a security fence that will function as a de facto border penning the Palestinians into about half of the West Bank — a request Israel firmly rebuffed. But pressing the Israelis to release men convicted for killing Israelis won't be easy, with an election season looming. Even if that's what Washington concluded was needed to keep Abbas intact. Because even more importantly, the Bush administration agrees with Israel's position that progress on the roadmap requires that Abbas begin systematically dismantling groups such as Hamas that have waged the terror campaign.

Abbas, however, has no intention of waging war on the very groups with whom he painstakingly negotiated the "hudna." His view of the path to peace is to slowly draw them into the Palestinian Authority, and commit them to the political agreements he negotiates with Israel. Israelis are not impressed, insisting that any further progress on the "roadmap" requires a Palestinian "war on terror," and that Israel won't make further concessions unless they see action. But Abbas refuses to launch a Palestinian civil war, and insists his way is actually working, bringing the calm that almost three years of Israeli military action failed to achieve. The Israelis say the "hudna" simply gives them breathing space to reorganize and rearm, and that without a crackdown the resumption of terror is inevitable. The differences over how the Palestinians proceed on the security front appear to be intractable, at least to the extent that they're left up to the Israelis and Palestinians themselves to resolve. President Bush will now be forced to not only act as promoter and referee in the peace process, but as choreographer and ringmaster. And that's unlikely to be a comfortable role.

It's made even more difficult by the fact that while Sharon is the executive in charge of all Israeli actions, Abbas essentially functions as a mediator between the Americans and Israelis on the one hand, and the Palestinians with whom they refuse to talk on the other — Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the militants of Fatah and Yasser Arafat. He rules at Arafat's pleasure, and the only leverage Abbas has is to threaten to quit. He has repeatedly used that device in his clashes with Arafat, and he does the same in Washington, warning that unless the U.S. can squeeze more concessions out of Israel, he'll be out of the game.

U.S. and Israeli efforts to sideline Arafat have actually made his political life easier viz-a-viz the Prime Minister Washington would love to see eclipse the aging Palestinian leader. That's because despite the fanfare that accompanied the launch of the "roadmap" six weeks ago, there has been very little easing of the siege conditions under which ordinary Palestinians are living in the West Bank. And while Abbas is seen negotiating with the Israelis and offering concessions, ordinary West Bank Palestinians know that Arafat remains confined by the Israelis, sharing their fate. That may be why Abbas continues to implore Sharon — and will no doubt do the same to Bush — to restore Arafat's freedom of movement.

It's already clear that direct White House intervention is necessary to resolve every substantial step along the way, and the load is likely to get even heavier. Like President Clinton before him, President Bush may have already created the expectation among the Israelis (and soon, no doubt, among the Palestinians, too) that Washington will give them a hearing whenever they need one. But the onset of the Fall marks the beginning of the next U.S. presidential election season, which according to conventional wisdom is not a great time to be micromanaging a painfully tough and complex peace process. And that may be exactly where this is heading. After all, the Fall also brings the three-month "hudna" up for renewal.