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With Sharon Trip Off, Officials Seek Clarity on Fate of Road Map

May 21, 2003
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Ariel Sharon’s trip to Washington was supposed to have brought some clarity about where the Bush administration and Israel stand on the “road map” to Israeli-Palestinian peace.

But after a string of suicide bombings since Saturday led the Israeli prime minister to postpone his White House visit, lawmakers and other supporters of Israel seem more confused than ever about the status of the plan.

There has been much movement in the halls of Congress and from other interested parties since the weekend, with some calling for President Bush to recall the road map and allow Israel to fight terrorism, and others urging him to push it forward.

The plethora of viewpoints — often similar except for differences of nuance — has had a “numbing effect” on the White House and other policymakers, one Jewish leader said. The Bush administration is likely to find support, and ridicule, no matter which direction it turns.

Some feel the road map has become more of an obstacle to moving forward than a vehicle. The plan was supposed to lay the groundwork for resuming peace talks, but Israelis’ and Palestinians’ insistence on haggling over the conditions for even starting the plan has placed the Bush administration and Congress in the middle.

White House officials say the president is focused on the plan the United States crafted with its partners in the diplomatic “Quartet” — the European Union, United Nations and Russia — but that he believes the first step should be a Palestinian crackdown on terrorism.

“We’re still on the road to peace; it’s just going to be a bumpy road,” Bush said Monday. He also called on Palestinian leaders to “work with us to fight off terror.”

A day later, the president called the new Palestinian Authority prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, and urged him to work to prevent future attacks. Bush also spoke to Sharon on Tuesday, the day the two were to have met in Washington.

While Bush has an enormous amount of goodwill in Congress on Middle East issues, even from Democrats, his insistence on following the road map could hurt that standing, Weiner said.

“The administration is trying to have it both ways,” he told JTA. “The president’s advisers are trying to distance him from the road map because they sense it is politically and substantively a problem for him.”

At the same time, however, the State Department is still pushing for an “even-handed” approach to peacemaking, he said.

The road map has its supporters as well. A group of 40 lawmakers, including three Jewish members, sent a letter to the president on Tuesday praising him for presenting the road map to Israel and the Palestinians on April 30.

“This is a clear statement from members across the political spectrum that if you back away from the road map now you don’t stop terrorism, you empower terrorism,” one Democratic congressional official said. “The implied message is also that Sharon should accept the road map and keep the discussions going.”

What the letter does not include is the parameters that should “guide” the road map. Those parameters were spelled out in a letter signed last month by more than 300 lawmakers and backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

The provisions include real authority for Abbas, an end to terrorism, accountability in Palestinian government and an overhaul of the Palestinians’ myriad security services.

Those provisions were seen as essential parts of President Bush’s landmark policy speech last June 24. The road map was supposed to be a formula for implementing Bush’s vision, but the “teeth” of the speech were left out of the plan, according to signers of the AIPAC-backed letter.

Privately, White House officials and their supporters say the president sees the road map as a guideline and its vagueness as a political necessity. When it comes to implementing that vision, Bush’s gut feelings are closer to the June 24 speech, which is why Bush and White House officials often refer to it alongside the road map, they say.

Bush’s goal is to get Abbas to curb terrorist attacks enough to get the parties started on the plan, then push Israel to make reciprocal steps. The road map was presented to the parties as a reward to the Palestinians for appointing Abbas, White House officials say.

But that may not be enough. Noting that he represents a “key constituency” for the president, Christian leader Gary Bauer and 23 of his colleagues sent a letter to Bush on Monday calling it “morally reprehensible” for the United States to be “even-handed” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“He seems to have drifted away from the clear guidelines of Bush’s speech last June, and all the slippage is in the most important areas,” said Bauer, president of American Values. “Every time the president comes out and exerts more political capital on the road map, it becomes harder for him to back off.”

He believes Bush will urge Israel to restrain itself in the days and weeks ahead more forcefully than he did after a string of bombings in the spring of 2002 led to Israel’s first major invasion of the West Bank, said Bauer, adding that such a call would be “inappropriate.”

The letter from Christian leaders is significant in part because of the political implications of Bush’s Middle East steps as he gears up for re-election. To that end, Democratic supporters of the road map have begun to try to influence the nine candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, urging them to endorse the president’s road map efforts.

Jonathan Jacoby, founding director of the Israel Policy Forum, which organized a letter to the Democratic candidates, said he hoped the letter would set a tone for the presidential primaries and make clear that, as he believes, a majority of American Jews support the road map.

“To the extent that the Bush administration might have thought that promoting the road map was a risk with regard to the Jewish community, this letter helps prove it’s not the case,” Jacoby said.

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