The deterioration in Palestinian-Israeli relations that has put us back into the vicious circle of violence and ended the implementation of the first phase of the roadmap has also once again focused attention on the American role in this conflict. Most Palestinian politicians and analysts, and some on the Israeli side, have blamed the United States (although not only the United States) for the recent collapse. What magnified American responsibility for the failure to implement the roadmap was US insistence that it take sole responsibility for the monitoring role that is a crucial component of the roadmap plan.
The roadmap began as a Quartet-crafted document that reflected a compromise understanding between the divergent views of Quartet members--Russia, the United Nations, the European Union and the United States. But when the actual implementation began, the Bush administration pushed the other Quartet members aside and gave them the impression that it would take the lead in supervising roadmap implementation. It is no surprise, then, that the US is widely seen as responsible for the roadmap’s failure.
Certainly, the recent increase in US attention to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is related largely to the difficulties American policy is facing in the Middle East region. The significant decline in credibility that the US has experienced as a result of this conflict, the war in Iraq, and also its actions in some Islamic states, is pushing the American administration to try to offset the slide in credibility by acting as peacemaker between Palestinians and Israelis. As a result, the collapse in Palestinian-Israeli relations and the subsequent eruption of violence coinciding with the dramatic swing in tension in Iraq is having a negative impact on US public opinion about Bush administration policies. We can only expect, then, that the government will have to do its best to prevent Palestinian-Israeli relations from slipping off the abyss. That begs the question, however, as to whether the US will proceed along the right path, and in a manner that takes into consideration lessons from the past.
Two general deficiencies have characterized the US approach as it attempted to implement the roadmap in recent months. These are the inability to understand and compensate for the traditional power imbalance between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as a superficial American understanding of internal Palestinian politics. While there remains a slim chance of salvaging the roadmap from this dramatic deterioration, that chance rests on the extent and quality of political capital that the administration is willing to invest.
As such, three words of advice might come in handy. First, it is still possible to reinstate the ceasefire, provided that this cessation of violence is mutual on the part of both Palestinians and Israelis and stems from each side’s adherence to that early clause of the roadmap that calls for Palestinians and Israelis to declare an end to all violence anywhere against the other.
Second, all components of the first phase of the roadmap should more or less be implemented in parallel: steps in security, political reforms, troop withdrawal, a settlement freeze and dismantlement, and the reinstatement of Palestinian institutions in Jerusalem, etc. The sequential approach, which is the Israeli approach, is fatal.
Third, the United States government should refrain from the deep interference in internal Palestinian politics that has characterized recent weeks and show more respect for Palestinian law, the constitution and democratic processes. Recent US interference in the form of public statements and practical interventions has only backfired.
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is minister of labor in the Palestinian Authority cabinet and has served for many years as a political analyst and media contact.
The United States is failing in its mission to implement the roadmap and the Bush vision of June 24, 2002, and to establish a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.
This was not inevitable: as an election year approaches and the US sinks deeper into the Iraqi morass, Washington is simply not prepared to give high enough priority to the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
There are multiple dimensions to this failure. One is the shallowness of US intervention. Looking back over the past three decades, it is apparent that American involvement in the Arab-Israel conflict was successful when it manifested itself in the prolonged presence in the region--over weeks and even months of shuttling back and forth and sitting exclusively with the parties--of a strong US secretary of state (Henry Kissinger in 1974-75, James Baker in 1990-91) with a clear presidential mandate, or of a president himself (Jimmy Carter in 1978-79, nailing down the Israel-Egypt peace treaty).
True, President Clinton failed in a similar venture in 2000, and it was his abortive high profile involvement at Camp David and thereafter that deterred President George W. Bush and his aides and influenced the current administration's initial "hands off" policy. But once Bush did commit--presumably assessing that between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) he had enough good leadership material to work with--his only possible route to success was to follow in the footsteps of presidents Nixon, Ford and Bush senior, all Republicans, and empower a very senior American official to "camp out" in Jerusalem and Ramallah until the job was done. He refused.
One reason is the impending presidential elections of November 2004. Bush needs Jewish and right wing Christian votes and funds, and the lobbying organizations of those communities have signaled him to lay off and not pressure Sharon on key issues like settlements. Yet even this does not explain why he did not until recently attempt to galvanize greater pressure on the Palestinian Authority to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure. His negligence on both issues--and his alternative preoccupation with prisoner release and the "wall", both non-roadmap issues--appear to reflect bad advice at the strategic level concerning the necessary priorities. It also bespeaks a lack of presidential understanding of the damage rendered to US interests in the region by the prolongation of this conflict and by the expansion of settlements--dynamics that ultimately are liable to destroy Israel as a democratic and Jewish state.
This brings us to the real current US preoccupation in the Middle East: Iraq and its dilemmas. The elimination of the Saddam Hussein regime was supposed to usher in a new era of democracy and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) reduction in the region, and to facilitate Arab-Israel peace. Thus far it has failed spectacularly. No less distressing is the US failure in intelligence gathering and analysis and post-war planning that lies behind the present Iraq fiasco. These setbacks damage American prestige and deterrence, hence American peacemaking capabilities, in the region.
They also determine Washington's order of priorities for the coming months. With the US losing more than a soldier a day in Iraq, searching desperately for international partners to shoulder part of the burden, and seemingly incapable of stanching the growing violence, the choice is clear. In the Israeli-Palestinian arena, the administration will avoid high profile involvement and spin or cut its losses while empowering Sharon to continue and even escalate his war on terrorism--all in order to minimize public pressure from critical constituencies.
At the same time, the administration will go all out to show some results in Iraq, where it cannot back out without risking a severe electoral setback in 2004, and where the fallout from failure is strategically more critical, insofar as it could negatively influence global terrorism, WMD proliferation, vital energy resources and friendly regional regimes, including Israel. Nor have we even mentioned the rest of the "axis of evil": the administration has to be ready to deal with escalating nuclear challenges from Iran and North Korea, possibly in the coming months.
The financial side of this choice is staggering: the US is already spending in one month in Iraq alone considerably more than it spends in aid to Israel and the PA in a year; it is spending annually in Iraq about twice the sum that President Clinton contemplated spending on Israeli-Palestinian peace (refugee resettlement, desalination, additional security for Israel) over ten years.
Given these American priorities, it is hard to understand the pronouncement of Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Yaalon that "everything [concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] depends on Bush." At the daily, tactical level of financial and diplomatic pressures this might be true. But at the broader strategic level very little currently depends on Bush, because Bush does not really intend to risk very much here.
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is a former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Barak.
The troubled circumstances of Palestinians in the occupied territories today most aptly demonstrate the extent and depth of the fascism of the Israeli occupation. Systematic acts of assassination are at their height. More and more Palestinian mothers and families have their hearts broken at the hands of what I call the "slaughter of Sharon." This is taking place to deafening Arab silence and in the midst of international ineptitude. The curfews continue and Israeli jails continue to fill with Palestinian prisoners in intolerable conditions. In addition, the new Berlin wall, a wall of isolation, continues to snake through Palestinian land. In other words, one might say that, for Palestinians, the roadmap has been turned into a path of blood, anguish and suffering.
At the same time, and I write this with deep regret and sorrow, we have a Palestinian cabinet headed by Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) that continues to engage in political mismanagement. In my view, this mismanagement is negatively affecting Palestinian national interests tremendously. Incongruently, and despite the dramatic state of affairs I have just described, Abu Mazen’s government has not called for suspending talks with the Israeli occupation institution, but has instead called for cutting off talks with Palestinian resistance groups. Instead of directing its anger and its energies at pressuring the Israeli government to end its violations, we find this government almost across the board doing its best to weaken the struggle against the occupation.
Several statements by cabinet ministers damning the Palestinian resistance have contributed to the recent escalation of tensions within Palestinian society. The assassination of Hamas leader Ismail Abu Shanab by Israeli warplanes interrupted the beginnings of a serious Palestinian feud. A cabinet whose ministers consider Palestinian resistance--not the tenacity and belligerence of the Israeli occupation--damaging to Palestinian national interests does not express the feelings of the Palestinian street and does not represent Palestinian ambitions. (It must be said that not every minister in this government bears the same culpability, and some statements of sanity have made their way through the fog.)
Who is it that defines Palestinian national interests more so than the active and the functional political forces on the ground? These are forces that emanate out of Palestinian suffering--deep suffering--and it is these forces that work diligently to put an end to Palestinian suffering, not this or that cabinet minister.
Today, the Palestinian situation is in a precarious position and it is time for wisdom and rationality to dominate over conspiratorial tactics. The symbol of Palestinian nationalism, Yasser Arafat, deserves this; the difficult struggle endured by the Palestinian people merits this; and the retention of Palestinian rights, which are in my view more sacred than the land itself and all its holy sites, make this imperative. The sanctity of our rights demands the semblance of stability.
The United States, for its part, seems to be terribly pleased that it has found domestic tools that will work diligently to achieve its objectives in Palestinian society. These objectives, which are bound to fail, mean to weaken the Palestinian struggle, to marginalize Yasser Arafat and to work in a calculated way to assassinate him politically and morally in the eyes of Palestinian society, which he loves and which loves him. The role of the United States, which centers on meddling in Palestinian politics to strengthen and maintain some members of the Abbas government, does not take into account Palestinian interests nor has it put an end to any single aspect of the Israeli occupation. The larger objective of the United States is to make the Palestinian struggle unacceptable to Palestinians themselves; finding Palestinian tools to achieve this has been a most gratifying development for the Bush administration.
Let me give just one example. Why, instead of exerting pressure on the Palestinian government to freeze the accounts of Islamic charitable organizations, did not the Bush administration and the Palestinian government itself work first to find a substitute for the thousands of needy families that rely on those organizations for their daily bread? Freezing these accounts and providing no alternative only strengthened the Islamic movements, as they have now been handed a new mobilization tool through which to shore up their backing in Palestinian society.
It is time for the Abbas government to save face and apologize to the Palestinian people--a people that has contributed thousands of martyrs and wounded to this struggle--for the recent comments of its ministers. Indeed, it may be time for this government to courageously resign of its own volition: first, because it is no longer acceptable to Palestinian society, but more so because it is no longer accepted by Fateh, the forefront of the Palestinian struggle.
This government can no longer shift the Palestinian people from one political catastrophe to another. It is not acceptable for the Palestinian government to move the Palestinian people further towards fragmentation and dispersal. The situation that we find ourselves in has no room for added experimentation with Palestinian lives and the destiny of the Palestinian cause.
Hisham H. Ahmed, Ph.D, is associate professor of political science at Birzeit University.
"Is the roadmap dead?" Before addressing this question, one may remember that many observers, including myself, maintained all along that in its present form there were too many "holes" in it to make it work. It suffices to mention the unworkable timetables or the absence of what Israel sees as an absolute must--the annulment of the so-called "right of return." Even the "vision" of a "democratic, viable Palestinian state" living in peace alongside Israel, inevitably raises the question of why the projected Palestinian state should be different from most other Arab states?
However, the most substantial issue is the imperative to stop Palestinian terror and violence. This was especially important to Israelis after the abject failure of the Oslo agreement, the breakdown of the Barak-Clinton initiative at Camp David, and the outbreak of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s "al Aqsa intifada". The current Israeli government thus sees the end of terror as crucial for a meaningful political process. This was reinforced, both in Israel and in the US, after 9/11 and the Bush administration’s clear and unequivocal stand against terrorism. The roadmap, in spite of several attempts by members of the Quartet to shift the emphasis, mandated clearly that the Palestinian Authority must begin "sustained, targeted and effective operations" to dismantle terrorist infrastructure, etc. None of that happened. Instead, the Palestinian Authority concluded a temporary ceasefire (hudna) with Hamas and Islamic Jihad that was used by those groups as a breather to regroup and rearm, and it soon became evident that the terror groups did not regard the hudna as an absolute stop to violence--nor did Arafat.
At the time of writing, the internal Palestinian political situation is far from clear, and the outcome of the crisis is bound to have an impact on the future of the roadmap. Another important element is the currently insufficient concrete support the "map" enjoys from the Arab world. As Dennis Ross recently wrote: "Prime Minister Abbas needs the cover of Arab legitimacy to confront Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the al-Aqsa Brigades."
The usual Palestinian explanation for failing to act against the terrorists is that they do not want to risk civil war, though it is far from clear whether a more determined action would in fact have led to civil war--or whether this argument is but a subterfuge to refrain from action. Be this as it may, Israelis wonder whether the present Palestinian political crisis is not just a contest between Arafat who doesn’t want to deliver and Abbas who can’t (or at least doesn’t want to get his feet wet in trying to deliver). Paradoxically, Israel’s renewed military operations against the terrorists might now give the roadmap a new lease on life--with Israel doing the Palestinians "dirty work". Though Washington has few remaining illusions about the Abbas government, it has not given up on it yet, but it has left no doubt as to where the main responsibility lies for the crisis in the roadmap.
"But what about the settlements?" Though this subject must indeed come up sooner or later, the equation between stopping terror and freezing settlements looks to most Israelis disingenuous. On the other hand, had the Palestinian Authority lived up to its primary obligations with regard to fighting terror, this would have put the onus for continuing the process squarely on Israel. At present, Prime Minister Sharon, facing increasing opposition from inside his own party and coalition with regard to several aspects of the roadmap, is not even required to face some of the more difficult decisions in it.
The Bush administration’s Middle East policy was based on three interrelated points: victory in Iraq, reform and democratization of the Arab world, and "solving" the Arab-Jewish conflict. After years of America projecting an image of being a "paper tiger", Middle Easterners looked in awe, though not always with glee, at America’s decisive and swift military victory over Saddam Hussein.
Basically, this attitude has not yet changed. The "link" between America’s enhanced position and the Palestinian-Israeli equation was that Palestinians were given to understand that only if they renounced terror, and only with American support, could they realize part of their aspirations. Palestinians also hoped that given America’s overall design for the Middle East, pressure would be put on Israel to make concessions beyond those the latter was ready to make. However, as long as Palestinian terror continues--especially with Yasir Arafat trying to reassume absolute power--the chances for this scenario to materialize are highly doubtful, even without involving ourselves in American domestic politics.
Much will indeed depend on how the US pursues its aims with regard to Iraq. America’s precipitate withdrawal, 20 years ago, from Beirut led to decades of losing face in the Middle East--and indirectly to many of the region’s upheavals. But Iraq and creating a durable framework for Persian Gulf and regional security are far more important than Beirut ever was! Palestinians, like others in the Middle East, will therefore carefully watch how the US deals with the Iraqi situation--and draw their conclusions accordingly.
So, is there still a chance for the roadmap? Though some argue that it was stillborn in the first place, one could also make a case that after some thorough retooling it could yet lead to positive results. Setting the sights a bit lower, and provided the difficult first stage can be overcome, the "map" could still function as a general compass to bring the two sides to a long-term "modus vivendi" which, though short of solving all the outstanding issues (e.g., Jerusalem, holy places, or the final borders of the future Palestinian entity) would nevertheless put an end to violence and give the two peoples an extended period of calm and prosperity.
Full fledged idyllic "comprehensive" peace between Israel and the Palestinians will probably have to wait for generational changes--but, after all, this would not be so different from what history has shown in other parts of the world, including Europe: first pragmatic arrangements and only then permanent peace.
Zalman Shoval served twice as Israel’s ambassador to the United States. He is a former member of Knesset and advises Prime Minister Sharon on some foreign policy issues.
To unsubscribe from this bitterlemons text email list, simply write to email@example.com with "unsubscribe" in the subject line. To subscribe to the text version instead, write to firstname.lastname@example.org. Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org, respectively.
Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.