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As It Woos Support for Iraq Fight, U.S. Not Abandoning Israeli Track

October 30, 2002
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As it continues to build international support for a war against Iraq, the United States is showing a new eagerness to broker an end to two years of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

The Bush administration recently released a “road map” detailing steps toward a final Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

So far, Israel and the Palestinian Authority have given mixed reactions to the road map. William Burns, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, is traveling in the region this week, garnering reaction and trying to move forward on the plan.

Conceived by the four players in the Mideast peacemaking “Quartet” — the United States, United Nations, Russia and the European Union — the document calls for a three-staged approach leading to a Palestinian state and a final peace deal within three years.

Israel has expressed a number of reservations to the plan, saying it won’t make any concessions until the Palestinians undertake a serious overhaul of their government and security services. Israel also demands that — in contrast to its experience under the Oslo accords — the Palestinians be made to comply with their commitments before the parties move on to subsequent stages.

Sharon also objects to the plan’s call for a complete freeze in Israeli settlement building, saying that settlements must be allowed to accommodate “natural growth.”

The Palestinians, for their part, fear that the plan could lead to the perpetuation of Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The road map is seen as the Bush administration’s most ambitious Mideast plan to date, and a sign that the White House will back up the president’s June 24 Mideast policy speech with details.

“It represents a far more serious entrance into peace negotiations than we’ve ever had by an American administration,” said Stephen Cohen, a national scholar with the Israel Policy Forum.

Others, however, say the road map essentially abandons the vision Bush laid out in June.

“Breathing further life into this approach, without a top-to-bottom revision of both concept and detail, would render President Bush’s June 24 approach stillborn,” Robert Satloff, director of policy and strategic planning at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote in an Oct. 23 edition of the institute’s Peace Watch.

Some analysts argue that the road map was meant primarily to appease moderate Arab states as the Bush administration tries to build a coalition for war against Iraq.

Arab states have expressed a great deal of concern about the administration’s alleged lack of interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The road map helps enunciate U.S. plans for the conflict after a possible Iraqi war.

“For a lot of people who said, ‘Forget about Iraq and solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict first,’ there are those who say, ‘You have to go through Iraq to get to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,’ ” said one official with an American Jewish organization. This plan, the official said, does the latter.

“The people in charge of Arab-Israeli relations are always seeking the commitment of the president to sign on to something that gives them the mandate to move forward,” Cohen said. “The president is interested in giving it to them because his interest is on something else that requires calm on the Arab-Israeli issue.”

America’s success in the 1991 Persian Gulf War created the conditions later that year for Arabs and Israelis to attend the Madrid peace conference, which launched the process leading to the Oslo accords.

Analysts say the new road map lays the groundwork for a similar initiative on the Israeli-Palestinian track after another war in the gulf.

“A quick and decisive war will renew that mandate,” said Scott Lasensky, assistant director of the U.S./Middle East Project at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “Anything that goes beyond quick and decisive military action will be far more complicated.”

But the U.S. effort also can be viewed independently of the Iraqi issue. Bush’s June 24 speech — in which he called for a Palestinian state only after the Palestinians decisively broke with terrorism, replaced their leaders and instituted sweeping governmental and security reforms — needed details to flesh it out.

In addition, the road map is seen as essential to the viability of the Quartet, which is seeking to internationalize Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking to an unprecedented degree.

“Setting aside Iraq, the United States had to do this or their diplomatic goals and their diplomatic mechanism, mainly the Quartet, were in danger of falling apart,” Lasensky said.

Cohen said the road map goes much further than previous Bush administration efforts, such as cease-fire proposals last year by former Sen. George Mitchell and CIA Director George Tenet.

The road map, he said, allows for Israelis and Palestinians to work out their problems on their own and “takes into account basic Palestinian aspirations of getting a state living side-by-side with Israel.”

“It starts to link Palestinian internal change to Israeli responses to that change,” Cohen said. “What is unusual is that it’s no longer about the end state, but a question of how you can build a solid structure that could support the end state.”

Others raise major concerns with the plan. Satloff said he believes the road map relies on the participation and support of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, despite the fact that Bush has called for new Palestinian leaders not “compromised” by terrorism.

Yet only Arafat can take the steps the road map requires, such as creating the post of prime minister within the Palestinian Authority and appointing a new cabinet, Satloff wrote.

“Evidently, the Quartet believes it is possible to finesse the Arafat issue, gaining his support for reform measures designed to undermine his rule while denying him the proper mandate that he wants to prove his continued relevance,” Satloff wrote.

Satloff also is concerned about the Quartet’s proposed role in negotiations, questioning whether the “internationalization of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking” is positive.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee likewise is concerned about the Quartet’s role, specifically in orchestrating international conferences and serving as monitors at each step of the plan.

Supporters of Israel charge that, under previous peace accords, the United States routinely overlooked or downplayed the Palestinians’ failure to comply with their commitments in order to maintain diplomatic momentum. Under the road map, three actors considerably less partial to Israel would gain a say in determining compliance.

“You clearly see the Quartet replacing where the United States once was,” AIPAC spokeswoman Rebecca Needler said. “You are internationalizing the situation, which is a dramatic change, and we have seen in the past that the international community has not been unbiased in this situation.”

AIPAC also is concerned about the lack of concrete measures to determine Palestinian security performance.

“There is no focus on security,” Needler said. “We are back to focusing on what Israel will give up.”

But Needler noted that the road map is still in draft form, and said she is confident that Israeli concerns will be addressed before the final version is due next month.

Cohen said he is concerned that the road map has “no date of departure.”

Yet Satloff noted that the juxtaposition of Israeli and Palestinian steps in the plan does not make much sense: Israel is supposed to be negotiating Palestinian statehood even before the Palestinian Authority has finished confiscating weapons, something it has repeatedly promised but failed to do.

“Without the passage of a substantial amount of time to ensure that these Palestinian commitments have been met, it is impossible to imagine any Israeli government agreeing to the sort of compromises for statehood that the road map envisions,” he wrote.

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