ME Road Map Has Different Turnoffs for Bush, Sharon, Arafat
The long-awaited road map charted by the United States, the United Nations, Russia and the European Union was presented without fanfare to the Israeli and Palestinian governments on Wednesday, April 30, only 16 hours after a suicide bomber killed three people and injured 60 at Mike’s Place, a seafront Blues club near the US embassy in Tel Aviv.
With an eye toward placating an Arab world angered by the US war in Iraq and propping up Washington’s main ally, British prime minister Tony Blair, President George W. Bush made good on his promise to hand the peace plan to both sides once the Palestinians’ first prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas aka Abu Mazen took office.
debkafile‘s diplomatic sources are beginning to believe that the road map has so many obstacles stacked up against it that it may in the end lead nowhere.
Phase I requires the Palestinians to unconditionally end terror and violence.
There is little hope of that given the timing of the terrorist attack in Tel Aviv and the statements of intent coming from Yasser Arafat and Abu Mazen when the new government was presented to the Palestinian parliament on Tuesday, April 20. Those events reflect the Palestinian leadership’s true intentions, as spelled out in earlier articles on this page. As things stand now, the entire road map enterprise looks like grinding to a halt before moving out of Phase I.
In later phases, Israel is required to help normalize Palestinian life, withdraw from Palestinian areas occupied since September 28, 2000 (when Arafat launched his terror confrontation called Intifada). The status quo is to be restored to keep pace with Palestinian security performance and the progress of bilateral cooperation. Israel will also bound to accept a settlement freeze leading to the creation of a Palestinian state within interim borders by the end of 2003 and a free, democratic Palestinian general election. During two transitional years, Israel will have to execute withdrawals that would provide the Palestinian state-to-be with territorial contiguity.
If all these stages are successfully performed, Israeli and Palestinian representatives will come to final-status arrangements including the final borders of a sovereign Palestinian state and an agreed solution for the Palestinian refugee problem.
Both Israel and the Palestinians have demanded certain changes in the road plan’s provisions and Washington has declared its willingness to discuss them.
Since progress depends on performance in each phase, no fixed timetable can be realistically set for the blueprint’s final execution. Neither has a final arbiter been selected for resolving the issues and questions outstanding between the two parties.
In short, no one seems to be in much of a rush.
A case in point in regard to a related conflict: At 9 p.m. ET, on Thursday, May 1 (4 a.m., Israel time, on Friday, May 2), Bush will stand on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln and declare the combat phase of the Iraq War is over. He will stop short of declaring victory. debkafile‘s sources in Washington say he is inhibited by American forces’ failure to find Saddam Hussein, his sons and top Iraqi leaders, as well as Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
The Bush administration appears to have been struck with “shock and awe” by its own high-speed conclusion of the war. Sooner than anticipated, the Bush team is faced with the need to take a hard look at its post-war military and diplomatic options and take temperatures in the Middle East-Gulf region.
Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and secretary of state Colin Powell have been sent out to scout out the area and test their findings against the various options – a process that will take time. But the White House has a time limit. Campaigning for the November 2004 US presidential election gets started in earnest next January or February, which leaves the Bush team with seven or eight months to capitalize on the Iraq War and choose the correct options for making its aftermath a success and ushering in an era of peace and stability.
Given this time limit, the White House is focusing on the two objectives that appear most promising: Bringing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to an end and negotiating an Israel-Syrian peace treaty.
A remark thrown out by US congressman Tom Lantos (D-California) was a straw in the wind. After a 90-minute conversation with Syrian president Bashar Assad last Saturday, Lantos said he had picked up signs of a certain willingness to open talks with Israel. This remark may have been more of a Washington trial balloon than a wish expressed by the Syrian president.
Even the spectacle of Bush, Sharon and Abu Mazen ceremonially signing an interim peace treaty at the White House would enhance the standing of all three signatories. But Assad’s attendance at a similar ceremony carries the promise of a rush of votes to Bush’s table.
Far-fetched as this scenario might appear at present, Sharon would like nothing better than to retire as a warrior-turned peacemaker. If he could sign peace with both the Palestinians and Syria, he would outperform the first Likud prime minister, Menahem Begin’s feat in concluding peace with Egypt in 1979. The trouble is that each time a major achievement is within his grasp Sharon unlike Begin is hit by financial scandal. While the controversy surrounding the campaign contribution made by the South African millionaire Cyril Kern is still pending, the prime minister faced criticism in the latest state controller’s report published Wednesday, April 30, over his interference in government decision-making on the disposition of state lands in a way that would enhance the value of the farm he owns jointly with his two sons.
Sharon customarily refuses to be drawn into disputes about his personal conduct. He usually stays he had no notion he was acting improperly and in any case was too busy with affairs to state to engage in trivia. But he is increasingly dependent on his chef d’bureau, Dov Weisglass, a lawyer and longtime friend, to get him out of hot water. Weisglass, for his part, is using his position behind Sharon’s right shoulder to become a power in his own right in the prime minister’s office. He is in the process of taking charge of the prime minister’s key foreign connections, notably his dealings with the Bush administration on peace diplomacy with the Palestinians and potentially wih Syia.
DEBAfile’s political sources in Jerusalem reveal that Weisglass has gained the final say on a wide range of state affairs, sidelining Sharon’s national security adviser, former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy, who is considering resigning. If he does, he will be the second holder of this office to quit in one year, following major-general Uzi Dayan out the door.
According to debkafile‘s sources, Weisglass has already acted fast to fill the post even before it has fallen vacant, putting forward major-general Amos Gilad, the former coordinator of operations in the administered territories and ad hoc “State Spokesman” for the Iraq War. Weisglass has created a new diplomatic security unit for his man Gilad, at the head of which he will coordinate the security side of negoitations with Arab and Muslim goverments in case the Americans want to expand the Israel-Arab peacemaking circle somewhere down the line. Weisglass believes his man has the right intelligence background and security capabilities to lead the process.
In their disparate ways therefore, three leaders are getting set for the period following the Iraq War: The US administration has sent its top officials to canvass options, Sharon’s office is reorganizing to meet the needs of intensive peacemaking and Yasser Arafat, while never easing up on his terrorist campaign, has allowed Abu Mazen to be installed as prime minister and the best man for taking advantage of any peace perks on offer.
But Washington may find progress a lot less feasible than imagined. All the three sides have completely different expectations from the Middle East road map.