Road Maps and Road Blocks

by Andrew Hanauer | 5/15/03 5:00am

In another chapter in what may be one of the sadder stories of human history, it appears that the latest attempt at peace in the Middle East is doomed to failure. The work of the so-called quartet of the United States, United Nations, Russia and the European Union, the "Road Map to Peace" was presented formally by the State Department on April 30. It is a sequential approach, calling on both sides to take mutually beneficial steps in tandem in three phases, ending with the creation of a Palestinian state in 2005.

Phase One is to end in 16 days, one month from the time the road map was released. By that time, the Palestinians are to have issued a draft of a constitution and created an election commission, as well as begun a massive crackdown on terror organizations within the Occupied Territories. They have already completed the preliminary necessary step by appointing Mahmoud Abbas to the office of Prime Minister, pushing President Yasser Arafat relatively out of the picture at the insistence of the United States and Israel. For its part, Israel is to do away with all settlements built since March of 2001, stop deporting Palestinians and cease house demolitions.

One month? Well, it turns out that there was supposed to be more time to complete these steps. After all, the Quartet first met almost a year ago in July of 2002. Problem is, according to Brian Whitaker of England's The Guardian, Ariel Sharon asked George Bush to delay releasing the road map until after Israel's January elections. Bush agreed. Then came the installation of Abbas and the War in Iraq and suddenly it's April. The road map has no explicit instructions for what happens if the timetable is thrown off track. Extremists on both sides are as giddy as can be; time is on their side.

So is Ariel Sharon. First, he approved a plan in early April to allow Israeli settlers to move into a Palestinian neighborhood in Jerusalem, the first settlement in Jerusalem since Israel occupied the Arab half of the city in 1967. Then he lashed out at Britain, worried that Tony Blair was using his support for the Iraq war to influence Bush to push hard for the road map. The U.K. ambassador to Israel was given a scolding, and then Britain's foreign secretary, Jack Straw, was criticized for implying that U.N. resolutions on Israel should be adhered to as strictly as U.N. resolutions on Iraq.

But the road map's fate may have been sealed Tuesday when Sharon announced that he had no intention whatsoever of dismantling settlements any time soon. Granted, this could have been domestic posturing on Sharon's part, and the real "moment of truth," as one Western Diplomat phrased it to The New York Times, will be Sharon's visit to the White House next week.

Regardless, these were not isolated comments; indeed, Sharon's office has been instigating the Palestinians rhetorically all month. When Palestinian extremists did their part to attempt to derail the road map by sending a suicide bomber into Tel Aviv, Sharon chose to blame Prime Minister Abbas, whose job it is, according to the road map, to crack down on terrorism. "This new Palestinian government has stepped up to the plate and basically struck out," said Sharon's spokesman. At this point, Abbas had been in power for a grand total of one day.

These actions have angered Arab countries like Egypt: when Colin Powell stopped in Cairo this week, he received an earful regarding Israel's latest military incursions into the West Bank and Gaza. Meanwhile, there is a rift within the Quartet, largely because Russia, the United nations and the E.U. are "pro-Palestinian;" it did not help that Sharon was allowed to see a draft of the road map before even the three non-American members of the group. In short, everybody from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to Tony Blair to Vladimir Putin will be pressuring George Bush to pressure Ariel Sharon, who insists, of course: "There is no pressure from anyone." Which is precisely the problem.

All this is overshadowing the ascension of Abbas, one of the better things to happen in the occupied territories in recent memory. Abbas has already renounced terrorism and pledged to fight its purveyors, while simultaneously creating a power check to Arafat's corrupt leadership. A former Holocaust revisionist, Abbas has changed his views publicly, if not privately. Even Yossi Sarid, a member of the Knesset (Israeli parliament) Security Committee said of Abbas, "you (Israel) should give him a chance." A chance. Unfortunately, thanks to Mr. Sharon, that may be something the Road Map does not have.