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U.S. Prefers New Israeli Elections, Even if It Means Road Map’s on Hold

November 7, 2002
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With elections set for early next year in Israel, the Bush administration seems resigned to putting on hold its road map for a final Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

Analysts say that very little is expected to change in the next 90 days, as Israel prepares to elect a new prime minister after the fall of the unity government last week.

While the hawkish trifecta of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz might worry some, the circumstances of the next three months leaves Bush administration officials and lawmakers confident that at least the status quo will remain.

Sharon has pledged to President Bush that Israel would not make any offensive moves against the Palestinians that could harm the United States’ main focus in the Middle East, potential military action against Iraq.

“I don’t think it changes the bottom line,” said one congressional official. “Sharon gave a commitment to Bush that the pot wouldn’t boil, and he has shown no desire to change that commitment.”

David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he believes that the few months before Israel’s new elections will be marked more by continuity than by radical changes in Israeli policy.

Makovsky said he believes that Sharon will be unlikely to move aggressively because it could harm the U.S.-Israeli relationship, which he praised last month at the White House as the best it has ever been, and because it could hurt his chances of galvanizing moderate Israeli voters in the upcoming election.

Still, the fluctuation in Israeli politics is likely to thwart progress on the road map, which details steps toward a final Israel-Palestinian deal.

The road map, presented to both the Israelis and the Palestinians last month, is based on recommendations of the “Quartet” — the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia.

The document, which lays the ground work for several years of initiatives and negotiations leading to a provisional Palestinian state by 2005, was seen as important for establishing what the United States would do in the Middle East after it leaves Iraq.

Both Israel and the Palestinians have expressed objections to the road map, which calls on the Palestinians to create a new constitution and security reform, with the eventual creation of new leadership within the Palestinian Authority.

It also seeks Israel’s return to its pre-September 2000 borders, prior to the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising, and the eventual end of all settlement development.

The document was also seen as important for garnering Arab support for U.S. military action against Iraq.

It’s not clear how the Arab world will view putting the road map on hold.

But one State Department official said the preliminary tasks of the road map are to be completed by the Palestinians, and they can continue regardless of who is in power in Jerusalem for the next few months.

“Nothing can change until violence stops on the Palestinian side and there’s a new leadership developing through reform; that gives us a process for restoration of trust and confidence,” the official said.

To that end, David Satterfield, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, is expected to travel to the region next week to check the progress of Palestinian reform.

Washington officials argue that progress on the road map was moving at a slow pace anyway before the shakeup in the Israeli political landscape.

And they are stressing that three months is a short period of time for uncertainty.

“The most significant thing is that the elections will be finished before Congress comes back” to start a new term in the United States in January, one pro-Israel official said.

For the time being, the road map is likely to remain the guiding document of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I don’t think that the United States and the international partners are going to depart from it,” the congressional official said. “The question is whether it will be the topic or conversation at the dinner table.”

To a large extent, official Washington breathed a sigh of relief that Sharon chose new elections over forming a coalition with right-wing members of the Knesset.

In addition to believing the Sharon assurances that he will not harm Arafat, officials here do not believe that Israel would be more eager to retaliate against Iraqi attacks if the U.S. takes military action in the region,

There is also an understanding that the possible move toward a more right-wing government in Israel once elections are over — with Netanyahu vying for power to head Likud — represents Israeli frustration over two years of violence, the State Department official said.

“We recognize the rise of hawkish candidates is a response to the fact that violence has continued on the Palestinian side,” the official said.

“We are confident that if we can get the Palestinians to move forward, Israel’s willingness to engage in a dialogue will change as well,” the official said, indicating he believed that would be the case no matter who wins Israel’s elections.

Former President Clinton agrees.

Speaking to reporters in Washington on Tuesday, he said he believed Sharon and Netanyahu are capable of doing “the right thing,” noting their participation at the Wye River talks that produced an agreement with the Palestinians in 1998.

But while Washington is expressing confidence in the new interim government, it is by no means getting a green light to act as it sees fit.

Responding to questions about U.S. military action in Yemen, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher stood firm in the government’s opposition to Israel’s targeted killing of terrorists.

“Our policy on targeted killings in the Israeli-Palestinian context has not changed,” Boucher said.

“If you look back at what we have said about targeted killings in the Israeli-Palestinian context, you will find that the reasons we have given do not necessarily apply in other circumstances.”

A day earlier in Yemen, a missile fired by a CIA drone plane killed six Al-Qaida terrorists.

But many in the Jewish community questioned the difference.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell on Wednesday asserting that there are similarities between the U.S. action in Yemen and Israel’s policy of targeting killing.

“Israel is engaged in a parallel struggle to prevent terrorists from continuing their sustained, almost daily barrage of suicide attacks on civilians while seeking to cling to international norms and standards of engagement,” Foxman wrote.

“Moral clarity has been the guiding principle of this administration’s fight against terror as it pursues all terrorists with equal vigor,” he said.

“That same moral clarity must be reflected in our fair and consistent view of the common struggle of democratic nations to fight terror.”

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