WASHINGTON (Jan. 27)
Now that the “road map” peace plan has failed him, President Bush may be ready to ask for directions.
The Bush administration is quietly folding up the Israeli-Palestinian road map, the U.S.-led peace plan that neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis seem willing to follow.
In recent statements, top Bush officials have made it clear that the plan is moribund and that, for the most part, the Palestinians are to blame.
And after leading with tough talk for two years, the Bush administration is uncharacteristically asking for help and advice from the Israelis, some Arab nations and Europe.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is due to visit Washington in March, and topping the agenda is his contingency plan for unilateral disengagement from the Palestinians — an unimaginable scenario just months ago.
U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney is discussing alternatives with European allies during his tour of Europe this week, and the administration has watched with interest news of a Saudi proposal that addresses Israeli anxieties about the prospect of a mass influx of Palestinian refugees.
The new tone first was adopted by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell at a news conference two weeks ago announcing his outlook for the new year.
Powell repeated his allegiance to the road map, which envisions a Palestinian state and an end to terrorism by next year — but he made it clear he was waiting for the Palestinians to take action first.
“What we need right now is for the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority to get control of the security forces and to use those forces and use other tools available to him to put down terror and to put down violence,” Powell said. “Then I’m confident that we can move forward on the road map.”
Since then, U.S. officials have made clear that they have not seen signs of a crackdown. In fact, they say, Powell got his answer the day after his talk, when a suicide bomber killed four Israelis at the Erez crossing at the Gaza-Israel boundary.
“The attack in Erez made people less sympathetic to the Palestinians, more sympathetic to Israeli security,” said one U.S. administration official. Especially aggravating, the official said, was the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to condemn the attack.
Cheney echoed the disappointment this weekend at an economic summit in Davos, Switzerland.
“Peace will not be achieved by Palestinian rulers who intimidate opposition, tolerate and profit from corruption, and maintain ties to terrorist groups,” Cheney said.
The most stunning evolution was in John Wolf, the assistant secretary of state who was appointed Bush’s envoy to the region last year. He started out believing more in the optimistic outlook represented by then-P.A. Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas than in Sharon’s skepticism.
But that changed on Aug. 19, when a suicide bomb attack on a Jerusalem bus killed 21 Israelis, many of them children.
Wolf said he had persuaded Israel to allow the Palestinians a few days to crack down on terrorists after the attack.
“I have to say on the Palestinian side it was all talk and no action,” Wolf said at a forum here last week hosted by Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. “There was no real effort by the Palestinian Authority to stop the violence.”
The frustration was exacerbated by Abbas’ resignation in September — viewed by the Bush administration and by Israel as a triumph for P.A. President Yasser Arafat, whose support for terrorism has made him an unacceptable partner for the United States and Israel.
The final straw was the Palestinians’ failure to uncover who was behind an Oct. 15 bombing in Gaza that killed three people traveling in a convoy with Wolf. U.S. officials were appalled that the Palestinians did not even make an effort to find the killers.
Wolf, who is visiting Israel this week, is in the region for the first time since the Oct. 15 attack. He and David Satterfield, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, are pointedly avoiding the West Bank and Gaza, meeting instead with Palestinians in Jerusalem.
Before he left, Wolf insisted the meetings would be routine consultations and said he was not bringing anything new to the sides.
The evolving sympathy for Israel helped make the case for two emissaries who arrived here last week to argue Israel’s case for the security barrier it is building in the West Bank — and for the separation plan from the Palestinians that Sharon now favors and that the fence implies.
High-level meetings between administration officials and Dov Weisglass, Sharon’s top adviser, and Yoav Biran, the Foreign Ministry’s director-general were positive, Israeli officials said. They scored a partial victory: a softening in U.S. rhetoric on the security fence.
The fence’s route has been a U.S.-Israel sore point for months because Bush officials believe Sharon wants to use the fence to set parameters for a Palestinian state that would not be viable.
Biran and Weisglass sought a U.S. commitment to file a legal brief on Israel’s behalf at the International Court of Justice at the Hague, which is considering the issue of the fence next month.
That apparently won’t happen, but they did elicit a broad statement from the administration that the hearing “would undermine rather than encourage direct negotiations between the parties to resolve those differences.”
State Department officials also promised them that criticism of the fence in the department’s annual human-rights report would be “soft.”
Best of all for Sharon, U.S. officials found sympathy for his plan to begin unilateral separation from the Palestinians unless the Palestinian Authority cracks down on terrorism by midyear. That set the stage for Sharon’s visit in March, when Bush will at least entertain Israeli plans for disengagement.
In their meetings, Biran and Weisglass emphasized the collapse of the road map. One Israeli official likened it to a new product produced by Kibbutz Hepzibah, a chemically treated gold fish that can survive in a plastic bag for a year — but not much longer.
There are those in the administration and in Congress who are quick to remind Israel of its responsibilities, and who hanker for the road map’s survival.
In a speech Jan. 13 at a State Department symposium on the 1967 Six-Day War, Satterfield said Israel clearly had more to lose if the road map failed, implying that Israel bore greater responsibility for keeping it alive.
He underscored settlement building in the West Bank as a principle obstacle.
“Settlements continue to grow today, encouraged by specific ongoing government policies and at enormous expense to Israel’s economy,” he said. “And this persists even as it becomes clearer and clearer that the logic of settlements and the reality of demographics could threaten the future of Israel itself as a Jewish democratic state.”
And in Congress, a powerful Republican called on the administration to defy the traditional election-year squeamishness at dealing with foreign-affairs initiatives.
U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia, who chairs the subcommittee that funds the State Department, called on Bush to appoint a high-level diplomat to get the road map back on track.
“What is now needed is someone whose only job is to implement the plan, whose sole responsibility is to encourage peace in the region, who can at a moment’s notice fly anywhere in the world to talk, listen, assuage, mediate, cajole and console,” he said.
That’s not likely to happen for a while, said David Makovsky, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“There’s a growing realization Arafat is pulling the strings again. On the American side, it’s an election year, on the Israeli side there’s talk of unilateralism,” he said. “Any way you look at it, that’s not a combination that’s going to go.”