What kind of road map is on table for the Middle East? Time is running out [Archives:2003/648/Opinion]

July 7 2003

By Bakr Hamud Al-Junaid
[email protected]

As the hour of decision draws near in Iraq, a separate Middle East moment of truth for George Bush and Tony Blair – a battle to implement the “road map” for Israeli-Palestinian peace – may also be close at hand.
For months, the Bush administration, facing Arab and European fury over its handling of the Iraq crisis, has signaled that the end of the Gulf war would see the dawn of a fresh and whole-hearted diplomatic offensive based on the U.S., UN, EU and Russian-backed road map.
The war in Saddam Hussein's Iraq is surely far from over, but where the road map is concerned, the Day After may already be here.
The Sharon government, whose far-right flank is flatly opposed to three announced pillars of the draft road map – curbs on settlement construction, international supervision of implementation, and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state by 2005 – has lobbied for and won a number of delays in formal publication of the peace proposal.
But Israeli hawks have watched with trepidation the political plight of Tony Blair, as he has single-handedly taken on neighbor Jacques Chirac, scathing domestic opposition, and much of his own party in holding fast to his alliance with George Bush over Iraq.
Bush's debt to Blair has deepened with every UK casualty and every passing day of war, leading hardliners in the Jewish state to worry that the American president will repay the British prime minister in the only manner that can mitigate pan-Muslim and EU anger over Iraq: “delivering” Israel as the crucial player in forging a solution to the Palestinian problem.
The Palestinians have already taken the first move charted by the draft road map, launching reforms within the Palestinian Authority by forcing PA Chairman Yasser Arafat to appoint and share power with a prime minister.
One day senior PA officials stepped up pressure for action on the road map, putting Washington and London on notice that they were unwilling to wait any longer.
“We want the road map to be introduced immediately and without further delay,” Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat declared, indicating that he spoke for Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), his newly-appointed premier.
Blair told a war briefing that Abu Mazen had agreed to a timetable under which the road map would be presented to Israel and the Palestinians “the moment the [new Palestinian] cabinet is formed.”
“I am absolutely determined that we take forward this Middle East peace process because I believe it to be in the interest … not just of the Palestinians but Israel too,” Blair said.
Going further, Blair's foreign minister Jack Straw said the West was hypocritical not to demand the same sort of adherence to UN Security Council resolutions for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as it does for Iraq.
“There is a real concern too that the West has been guilty of double standards – on the one hand saying the United Nations Security Council resolutions on Iraq must be implemented; on the other hand, sometimes appearing rather quixotic over the implementation of resolutions about Israel and Palestine.” Asked if he would plead guilty to double standards, Straw said: “To a degree yes… and we're going to deal with it.”
Straw, like Blair and Bush, refrained from setting a date for the publication of the road map.
Erekat, on his part, was adamant. “Any talk of an agreement with Abu Mazen on delaying the introduction of the road map until after the Iraq war or the formation of the [Palestinian] government is absolutely unfounded.”
On Wednesday, responding to parliamentary questions before meeting Bush for a Camp David “war summit” later in the day, Blair turned aside criticism of the detours the road map proposal has taken.
“I know that there is a great deal of cynicism and skepticism within the Muslim and Arab world about whether statements made recently about the publication of the road map and about the desire to take this process forward are simply statements that will be made in the context of military action in Iraq and then forgotten,” Blair said.
“They will not be forgotten. They will be taken forward, and they will be done.”
If Blair, with his back to the wall, can view the road map as a potential path to redemption, the proposal could pose serious political risks to Sharon, Abu Mazen, and Bush.
“The big question will not be what kind of road map is placed on the table,” notes Haaretz commentator Akiva Eldar. “After the 'pudding' is served, the real test will be in the 'eating.' Sharon will no longer be able to be what he has been for the last two years – both 'caterer' and 'client.'”
To monitor implementation on the ground, a third-party mechanism is to be put in place, which could be either a CIA panel or a group of MI6 personnel.
When it is finally presented, the roadmap could pose a moment of truth for a number of governments at once.
In Israel, Ariel Sharon will face a political minefield in the sequence of events to be spelled out in the plan, argues Eldar. “One of the big changes in the road map is that the wording no longer calls for a sequence in which there is an end to [Palestinian] terrorism as they call it, and only then, a freeze on settlements. Now the two go together.”
When the plan is finally put forward, “Sharon will then have to decide who is more important, Bush or Benny Elon,” Eldar says, referring to a leader of the ultra-rightist National Union faction.
The debt that Bush owes Blair, coupled with a parallel debt Bush owes Secretary of State Colin Powell, has effectively accelerated the road map timetable, undercutting ability to stave off a decision, he maintains.
The peace plan will also neutralize Sharon's own vision of a vastly smaller Palestinian state, comprising only 42 percent of the West Bank.
Sharon recently coined a phrase, 'transportation contiguity,' to describe the road and air corridors that would link dislocated Palestinian cantons under his plan.
The Palestinians reject this as a non-starter. Crucially, Washington does as well.
But the Palestinians also face a tough choice. “The PA has accepted the plan, so if it turns out not to work, Abu Mazen will be in trouble vis- a- vis Hamas,” Eldar says.
The road map will likely present Bush with difficulties of his own. If he is viewed as pressuring Sharon, his road to re-election next year may be strewn with obstacles by pro-Israel groups in the United States.
As a result, Eldar says, Bush is happy to let Blair act as point man on the Mideast initiative. The president, meanwhile, can be seen as cementing his close relationship with Sharon, most recently in Bush's Tuesday announcement of an emergency war spending package, which includes $1 billion in direct aid and $9 billion in loan guarantees for Israel.
Blair, thus, can speak to the Arab world of the West's need to accept the “obligations of even-handedness” over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while Bush remains in the background.
If, however, Sharon digs in his heels and resists the road map, Bush will face a choice that could prove thorny in the extreme.
“Bush will then need to decide who is more important – Tony Blair or Sharon,” Eldar concludes. Of the two close, crucial allies, “Whom will Bush decide he needs to work with, and whose government will he decide that he needs to undermine?”