Bush’s Mideast Plan Sets Stage for Possible Showdown with Sharon

A new American “road map” is the most vigorous U.S. effort in nearly 18 months to end Israeli-Palestinian violence, but it could presage a coming clash between the Israeli and American governments.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is concerned that the new U.S. plan could lead to a Palestinian state even without the Palestinians ending terror or making necessary democratic and security reforms to allow a secure and durable peace.

Senior Palestinian officials, on the contrary, fear that the plan could lead to the perpetuation of Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Throughout the two years of fighting, the failure to restart political talks has revolved around a seemingly insoluble contradiction: Israel refuses to talk about the end goal of negotiations until the shooting stops, while the Palestinians are unwilling to stop shooting until the end result is guaranteed.

The American plan tries to square the circle by promising an end result — Palestinian statehood in three years — but making that goal performance-based. That means the Palestinians must stop violence and introduce reforms before they can achieve statehood.

The road map has three stages.

Stage one, to be completed by mid-2003, is restoration of the status quo ante: An end to Palestinian terror and an Israeli troop withdrawal to positions Israel held before the intifada began in September 2000.

During this period Israel would freeze all settlement activity and the Palestinian Authority would undertake reforms to become more democratic and transparent.

International monitors stationed in the area would determine whether each side had met its obligations.

Stage two, to be completed by the beginning of 2004, involves reducing the scope of Israel’s occupation and creating a Palestinian “mini-state.”

The Palestinian Authority would hold new elections, an international conference would be convened, a provisional Palestinian “mini-state” would be established after further Israeli territorial withdrawals, and Israel would take “additional action” on settlements– including, perhaps, dismantling some.

In stage three, which would take until the end of 2005, Israel would end its presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip by removing troops and settlers. Negotiations would address the most difficult “final status” issues between the two sides — Jerusalem, refugees, water, and final borders — leading to the establishment of a full-fledged Palestinian state.

The Saudi peace plan of February 2002 is seen as a relevant model for a final territorial deal between Israel and Palestine — based on an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders, with land swaps to compensate for any adjustments — and for ending the conflict between Israel and the rest of the Arab world.

Under the road map, movement from one step to the next within each stage, or from one stage to the next, would be “performance-based” — in other words, dependent on the parties carrying out their sequential obligations. Sharon has accepted the road map “in principle,” but sees it as a “dangerous diversion” from President Bush’s landmark policy speech of June 24: The plan is far less insistent on removing Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, and far more ambivalent about the need for a ceasefire before negotiations can begin.

Sharon also is worried about the idea of international observers deciding each sides’ performance.

“How can we allow observers to decide for us whether terror has or has not stopped?” he asked the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday.

Moreover, Sharon argues, the plan’s performance demands are totally incompatible with its fixed timetables. If the Palestinians are slated to get a mini-state in 18 months and full statehood in three years, the international community — eager to maintain apparent momentum toward a peace deal — will cut corners on Palestinian performance in order to meet the fixed deadlines, he maintains.

In late October meetings in Jerusalem with U.S. peace envoy William Burns, Sharon and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer argued that the road map makes no specific demands on the Palestinians to prevent terror until Israel withdraws to pre-intifada lines and the new, unified Palestinian security service is up and running.

Yet many here ask how Israel can be expected to pull troops out of Palestinian cities and towns if it means exposing Israeli citizens to terror attack. Surely Israel would need convincing guarantees that the Palestinians would take effective action against terror.

Burns, it seems, got the Israeli message.

“It is only through decisive action to end terror and violence and decisive action to reform in preparation for Palestinian statehood that we are going to be able to move ahead on a practical pathway to end occupation and this terrible conflict,” he declared after talks with Palestinian leaders in Jericho.

As for the Palestinians, they are seeking even more binding timetables — as well as American guarantees that the end product will be a Palestinian state with its capital in eastern Jerusalem and a “just” solution to the refugee problem.

The Palestinians also want elections as early as next January, which they believe will shore up Arafat’s status as a major player.

Does the road map stand a chance of effecting a breakthrough where other plans have failed? Or will it merely lead to tension between the Sharon government and Washington?

Several months ago, a senior official in Israel’s Foreign Ministry warned Sharon that he had not properly understood Bush’s June 24 speech.

Bush’s emphasis on the need for a ceasefire, democratization of Palestinian institutions and replacement of Arafat was only one side of the equation, the official said; the other was the president’s call for a Palestinian state in three years.

Sooner or later, he said, that would mean American pressure on Israel to deal with final status issues that Sharon, with his emphasis on a long-term interim agreement — and only after violence ends — has been reluctant to address.

During his year and a half in office, Sharon’s proudest diplomatic achievement in his contacts with the U.S. administration was to get the 2000 Clinton-Barak package for a final peace deal removed from the table. Now, with the road map, much of that package is back.

As such, the plan shows the successes and failures of Sharon’s diplomacy: He has succeeded in winning support for serious reform of the Palestinian Authority, but he has failed in dampening territorial demands from Israel and in preventing the internationalization of the conflict.

Given Israel’s economic woes and Sharon’s request — made during his Oct. 16 White House visit — for $10 billion from the United States in loan guarantees, the Jewish state seems unusually vulnerable to diplomatic pressure right now, creating the potential for a showdown.

But there is another school of thought that sees the road map as a real chance for peace, provided the Americans are serious about forcing the Palestinians to democratize.

Taking this line, columnist Sever Plotzker wrote in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot that the road map “changes the final goal of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal from ‘two states for two peoples’ to ‘two democratic states for two peoples at peace.’ “

And, Plotzker added, a final peace agreement that ends the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will require far-reaching concessions of the kind only democracies are able to make — and keep.

The real question, though, is whether the Americans will have the political will and the stamina to make the demands of both sides that are needed to make the road map work.

For now, Sharon believes, the Americans are pushing the plan to woo Arab support for an attack on Iraq.

After a war, he fears, the United States may get serious about it.

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