The Roadmap Leads Straight Off A Cliff

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Thousands of Palestinians jammed the streets of Gaza City for the funeral of Senior Hamas leader Ismail Abu Shanab

As if the news from Iraq this week wasn't bad enough for the Bush Administration, by Friday the President's Middle East peace "roadmap" appeared to be on the verge of collapse. Hamas and Islamic Jihad stated the obvious the previous day in announcing that their truce with Israel is dead, and with it may go the government of Mahmoud Abbas. The Palestinian prime minister has been reduced to an impotent spectator by the resumption of hostilities — a terror attack on a bus in Jerusalem that killed 20 Israelis, followed by the assassination of a senior Hamas leader, with both sides vowing more. No longer content to indulge Abbas's efforts to deal with the militant groups by negotiation and consensus, Israel has resumed direct military activity in Palestinian cities designed to eliminate their operatives. The Israelis underscored their contempt for Abbas's path of negotiating with Hamas by their choice of target — Ismail Abu-Shanab, killed by a rocket attack on his car in Gaza, was the very Hamas leader with whom Abbas had negotiated the "hudna" truce agreement. Israel?s message to Abbas was clear: Either you destroy Hamas, or we will. And Hamas and Islamic Jihad — and surely, also, the Al Aqsa Martyr's Brigades after three of their men were killed Friday in Nablus — have vowed to take grisly revenge. They, too, have a message for Abbas: Step aside.

So it may not be correct to label the latest upsurge as the end of the Bush Administration's "roadmap," but only because implementation of the "roadmap" hadn't really begun — most of the reciprocal gestures of recent weeks were not scripted by the "roadmap," but were made to calm the situation and create conditions for its implementation. Most important among these steps was the "hudna" truce brokered among Palestinian organizations by Abbas, which made last month the most tranquil since the beginning of the armed intifada in September 2000. The "roadmap" requires, as Israel insisted, that Abbas disarm and dismantle the militant groups, but the Palestinian prime minister warned that he had neither the political support nor the security muscle to pursue that option. Instead, he hoped that the truce would bring an easing of Palestinian life in the territories, which would create popular pressure on the militants to maintain it, and he could slowly begin to dismantle terror cells while drawing Hamas and Islamic Jihad into the political structures of the Palestinan Authority.

Although the Israelis warned that Hamas and the others would use the "hudna" simply as an opportunity to regroup, but they — and the Bush Administration — recognized that the man they had in effect chosen to lead the Palestinians (in the hope of finally sidelining Yasser Arafat) had negligible political support among his own people, and Washington urged Sharon to take steps that would shore up Abbas's credibility among on the Palestinian street and refrain from actions that undermined it.

Tuesday's outrage in Jerusalem, however, made that position untenable — Washington began pressing anew for Abbas to confront Hamas and Islamic Jihad. That simply underscored the prime minister's political weakness. His function in the current process has essentially been that of an emissary between the Israelis and Americans on the one hand, and those Palestinians with whom they refuse to talk directly — Hamas, JI, the various Fatah militias and terrorist groups and Palestinian president Yasser Arafat. Abbas has been more than simply a messenger, of course. He believes passionately that the armed intifada has brought catastrophe on the Palestinian national cause, and that all will be lost unless violence against Israel is ended unconditionally. But Abbas's only political weapon is the threat to resign — alternately directed at the White House, Israel or Arafat, its implication is that his departure will leave the others back in an intolerable mess.

The Israeli cabinet's decision to launch a new wave of military actions against Palestinian militants is reportedly based on the conclusion that Israel can no longer make the fate of Abbas's government a primary concern. Israel's recent gestures aimed at building Palestinian confidence in Abbas — lifting some closures, easing some travel restrictions, releasing some prisoners — are unlikely to be sustained, and have in many cases already been reversed. And all Palestinian militant groups will likely take the new upsurge as a cue to resume attacks both inside Israel and on the settler population in the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinians claim they're simply avenging Israeli attacks on their leaders; the Israelis insist they're targeting key leaders in self-defense against terror plots. The resulting resurgence in violence leaves Abbas isolated in a political no-man's-land.

In response to pressure following Tuesday's Jerusalem bombing, Abbas threatened to resign unless Yasser Arafat agreed to order Palestinian security forces (of which he controls the most important units) to crack down on Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Regardless of the outcome of their discussions, Thursday's assassination of a Hamas leader who had played a key role in negotiating the "hudna" made a Palestinian crackdown on Hamas and Islamic Jihad a non-starter. Abbas's security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, said his proposed set of actions against Hamas would have to be reassessed — PA security forces can't be seen, on the Palestinian street, to be doing Israel's dirty work.

The crisis lengthens the odds on Abbas's government surviving into the Fall. His entire political platform was premised on his ability to secure a Palestinian national consensus behind the cease-fire. Now that bombs and missiles are exploding all over again, his relevance will be called into question. The Palestinian prime minister's position may quickly become untenable if the Palestinian street blames Israel for the escalation. A senior Hamas official on Thursday called on Abbas to resign and leave the Palestinian territories, signaling the movement's readiness to confront any crackdown on the streets of Gaza.

The decision by Hamas and others to relaunch major terror operations inside Israel was not simply a bypassing of Abbas; it was a vote of no-confidence in the Palestinian prime minister. The militants had agreed to the "hudna" in the expectation that the quid-pro-quo would be the release of the 6,000 Palestinian militants currently in Israeli prisons, an end to Israel's attacks on their leadership, and an end to many of the restrictions that have strangled Palestinian economic life in the West Bank and Gaza. In the event, few of their demands were satisfied — as many in the Islamist camp had expected, having gone along with the process primarily to stay on-side with Palestinian public opinion. The killing Hamas and Jihad operatives in the past two weeks provided the excuse needed to relaunch the terror war. Or even, if some suggest, the Jerusalem bombing was ordered by a Hebron faction rather than the Hamas leadership in Gaza, the net effect will be the same.

The blame for the breakdown will inevitably land at Abbas's door — the Bush Administration and Sharon will chide him for failing to find the political will to act against terrorism; the Palestinians will chide him for being duped by them. But the problem may lie not only with the actor, but with the script: The "roadmap" has not changed the salient reality for the Israelis, which is that terrorists with no interest in a peace process can, at will, exercise the option of killing Israeli children on the streets of Israeli cities. Nor has it changed the salient reality for the Palestinians, which is a life of collective punishment under an Israeli occupation that imprisons them in their cities and separates them from their land, whether to expand Jewish settlements and their attendant infrastructure, or to build the security wall that will lock them into a patchwork of enclaves comprising less than half of the West Bank. It is its inability to transform those realities that is the inherent weakness of the "roadmap" plan.

From an Israeli point of view, it failed at the first hurdle because Abbas refused to disarm the militants. From a Palestinian point of view, it failed because Israel refused to answer the "hudna" with the quid-pro-quo of prisoner releases and withdrawals. But if the blood continues to flow in the coming weeks, the post-mortem on the cease-fire will become academic. And the discussion will shift to the question of what other ideas the Bush administration has for stopping the carnage that the Israelis and Palestinians, separately and together, appear unable to halt.