WASHINGTON (Mar. 16)
Israel and American Jewish groups are welcoming President Bush’s announcement that a “road map” toward Mideast peace will be presented in the near future, but the possibility of friction looms as Israel proposes dozens of changes to the plan.
In a surprise move last Friday, Bush announced that he would present the “road map” for an end to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict — drafted with the aid of the European Union, United Nations and Russia — to Israel and the Palestinian Authority after a new Palestinian prime minister who has “real authority” is confirmed.
“America is committed, and I am personally committed, to implementing our road map toward peace,” Bush said.
In addition, Bush called for an end to Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip “as progress is made towards peace.”
The U.N. envoy to the Middle East, Terje Roed-Larsen, was slated to report on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the “road map” to the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday.
Immediately after Bush’s speech, American Jewish leaders were invited to Washington to meet with Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice. They expressed strong concerns that Israel was being used as a pawn in an effort to drum up support for a strike against Iraq, and that a plan that has raised grave concerns among supporters of Israel had been placed back on the administration’s front burner.
European and Arab countries fear the United States will let the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fester while it takes on Baghdad. Analysts say Bush’s speech was not only a major signal to the Palestinians that their proposed prime minister must have real authority, but was an attempt to convince U.S. allies that war in Iraq won’t divert the president’s attention from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“The administration’s current initiative sets a terrible precedent by appearing to placate those nations who are opposed to America’s confrontation with Iraq,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
The danger of Bush’s speech was compounded by recent comments by British Prime Minister Tony Blair directly linking the Iraqi and Palestinian issues, Foxman said.
Under intense international pressure, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat recently created the post of prime minister for his longtime No. 2, Mahmoud Abbas.
The move appeared designed to placate critics in America and Israel who said Arafat would have to cede power before Israel and the Palestinians could make any progress toward peace.
However, Arafat will retain control over Palestinian security services and negotiations with Israel, and will have the power to dismiss the prime minister. That has led many to wonder just how much authority Abbas, who has criticized the Palestinians’ use of terrorism in the intifada, would have.
One participant said U.S. Jewish leaders pressed Rice “about whether the prime minister is going to have any real power at all, and why should the U.S. give this sop to the Palestinians at this point.”
Rice replied that the naming of a prime minister was an opportunity to test the Palestinians, and “maybe the position will make the man.”
Other Jewish leaders were satisfied with the speech’s content, especially the pressure it placed on Arafat to give the prime minister real power.
Israeli officials were pleased with the Bush announcement, Israel Radio reported, saying that they also wanted to ensure that the Palestinian prime minister would have real power.
However, Israel is preparing a response to the road map that reportedly omits all mention of an “independent” Palestinian state, mentioning only “certain attributes of sovereignty.”
In addition, according to the Israel daily Ha’aretz, the Israeli response sets stiff conditions for moving from one stage of the road map to the next, conditioning progress “upon the complete cessation of violence and terrorism, full disarmament of terrorist organizations, their capabilities and infrastructure, the complete collection of illegal weapons and the emergence of a new and different” Palestinian leadership.
Israel also rejects the demand that it immediately remove all illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank, and says it will freeze new settlement building only after “a continuous and comprehensive security calm.” Israel also rejects calls to end building that meets existing settlements’ “natural growth.”
Bush indicated Friday that even after it is presented, the road map will be open to modification by Israel and the Palestinians — though changes proposed by either side seem likely to spark controversy. Israel’s proposed response thus raises the prospect of serious friction in the future with the United States and the other members of the diplomatic “Quartet” who helped draft the plan. Bush’s speech shattered the administration position that it would not deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict until after an expected war against Iraq.
But a confluence of events changed the White House’s plans. First was the appointment last week of Abbas, more commonly known as Abu Mazen. The White House wants the new position to be much more than a figurehead.
“The speech was designed to give Abu Mazen some leverage in dealing with Arafat,” said Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who now is president of the Middle East Institute. “It was also designed to reassure Israel that there are a hell of a lot of things the Palestinians have to do before negotiations,” such as confirming Abbas’ appointment and giving him real responsibility.
The second factor was a need to reach out to Europe, Russia and the Arab world, all of which are resisting the U.S. push for war with Iraq.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the timing of the speech was a coincidence, but few in Washington are buying it.
Analysts said the speech reflected the U.S. difficulty in persuading the Security Council to pass a new resolution explicitly authorizing the use of force against Iraq, and the harsh criticism that Blair — Bush’s staunchest ally in the campaign against Iraq — is facing at home.
Without the diplomatic complications at the United Nations, “this road map would not have been presented now,” said David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Bush’s comments should be seen in the context of trying to change two regimes in the Middle East and preserve one in Britain.”
The speech attempted to show that the United States is listening to its allies, who see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the major issue in the region.
“The other parties the United States wants to confront Iraq have been demanding that some action be taken to push progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track,” said Scott Lasensky, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The U.S. has largely blunted these calls.”
Secondly, the speech indicated to France and Russia — which have pledged to veto a resolution authorizing force against Iraq — that the Iraqi standoff would not prevent the United States from working within the international system on other issues.
It also made clear that if the Palestinians took the necessary steps, the United States would be willing to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even while heavily engaged in Iraq.
“He’s made it very clear that if the Palestinians act, he’s ready to go,” Walker said. “This was not something that has to wait until Iraq is over.”
However, Israel and many American Jewish leaders have grave concerns about the road map. They feel it places too much pressure on Israel to make concessions without preliminary or reciprocal steps by the Palestinians, and gives too much influence to international players they consider biased toward the Palestinians.
The Jewish leaders stressed to Rice that current drafts of the road map are inconsistent with Bush’s landmark speech of last June 24, when he called for a change in Palestinian leadership and said an independent state could come only after the Palestinian Authority ends violence against Israel and makes significant reforms in the spheres of security, economics and government.
However, Rice “made it clear and unambiguous that the final road map will reflect the president’s vision of June 24,” according to one Jewish leader who participated in the meeting.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had managed to delay the presentation of the road map for months — first until after Israel’s Jan. 28 election, then until after he formed his government and then, he believed, until after a war with Iraq.
Having been forced to form a narrow, hawkish government, Sharon may find himself pressured to step back from the road map’s timetables, which call for Israeli concessions to begin after Palestinian moves that are partial or easily reversible.
Many in Israel also object to the fact that the Quartet will have the final say over whether each side has sufficiently fulfilled its duties to progress to the next stage of the road map.
Some fear the Quartet will push Israel to make concessions despite spotty Palestinian performance — as was the case throughout the years of the Oslo peace process — in order to maintain diplomatic momentum.
But Bush stopped short of seeking to implement the road map immediately.
“We will expect and welcome contributions from Israel and the Palestinians to this document,” Bush said, leaving the impression that there is room for negotiations.
“The road map is not a fait accompli,” one Jewish official said.
Bush’s announcement came even as criticism of the road map has grown within his own party.
On March 11, Richard Perle, chairman of the influential Defense Policy Board, hinted to the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs that there were concerns about allowing the Quartet to judge when to move from one stage of the plan to the next.