New 'road map' offers glimmer of hope for Mideast

Monday, May 5, 2003

JERUSALEM -- The "road map" that the world has unfolded for Israel and the Palestinians is the latest in a long line of grand designs for the Middle East. Despite enormous hurdles and a dismal record of past peace efforts, some see opportunity this time around.

The blueprint comes at a time when U.S. influence in the region is at its height, backed up by tens of thousands of troops in nearby Iraq.

And for the first time, the United States has enlisted the global community -- the United Nations, the European Union and Russia are cosignatories -- into a consensus for establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, the lands Israel occupied in the 1967 war.

That makes the Bush administration the first in nearly 35 years of U.S. peacemaking efforts to formally and unequivocally accept the idea of a state called Palestine.

Recent months have created a promising "confluence of circumstances ... the defeat of Saddam Hussein (and) the assertion of American power in the Middle East," and a reevaluation by some Palestinians of their uprising against Israel, said Tel Aviv University strategic affairs analyst Bruce Maddy-Weitzman.

But the obstacles are formidable. For starters, the two sides don't even agree on how to read the map unveiled last week -- whether it is Israel or the Palestinians who must make the first concrete move.

Much rests on how forcefully the Bush administration is willing to apply its new weight. It has already forced Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to share power with a newly appointed prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas. But Arabs have long complained that it refuses to do the same to Israel. They have to look back to 1956, and the Eisenhower administration's ultimatum to Israel to return the Sinai Desert to Egypt, for an example of the kind of pressure they want to see applied now.

Presidents dragged in

Every American president since the 1960s has been dragged into this conflict. A couple -- Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton -- actually got to officiate at peace treaty signings -- Israel and Egypt, Israel and Jordan. But most others saw their efforts come to nothing.

In an interview with Israel's Yediot Ahronot newspaper published Friday, U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said the Bush administration was determined to push forward.

"There has been a tremendous change in the Middle East," she was quoted as saying. "The president expects all the nations of the region, including Israel, to seize the opportunity ... Our expectation from the sides have changed in the wake of the Iraq war and the appointing of a Palestinian prime minister."

The violence that accompanied this week's diplomatic events underscored the enormous challenge that lies ahead.

On Tuesday, Israel killed three militants and a bystander in military operations. Early Wednesday morning, a suicide bomber killed a waitress and two musicians in a Tel Aviv pub. On Thursday, the Israeli army raided Gaza in search of militants, killing 12 Palestinians, four of them civilians.

Abbas and his security minister, Mohammed Dahlan, seem ready to either persuade or force militants who reject the road map to lay down their arms.

But their bases in the West Bank have been decimated by Israel and their officers are under severe travel restrictions. And even far mightier Israel, despite killing scores of militants and arresting thousands, hasn't managed to stop the suicide bombings.

Phase I of the road map demands an Israeli statement of support for Palestinian statehood, a freeze on all construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, and the dismantling of dozens of outposts built since 2001. Any of these concessions could bring down Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's rightist coalition.

The Palestinian leadership is required to reiterate its recognition of Israel's right to exist in peace, call for an immediate and unconditional cease-fire, and end all official anti-Israeli incitement. But the Islamic militants have already rejected a cease-fire, and the Palestinian Authority has never shown much appetite for taking them on.

But if these steps are to be simultaneous, Israel is opposed, saying it doesn't want to take any concrete steps until it is convinced terrorism has been abandoned.

Phase II, which could come as early as the end of the year, calls for creating a Palestinian state with "provisional borders."

That would require Israel, at the very least, to withdraw troops from the disconnected Palestinian autonomy zones, and it will also face pressure to expand the zones into a more contiguous and manageable territory.

That's a risk, because Palestinian-controlled areas have served as refuge for militants in the past. It could also mean dismantling long-established settlements.

Sharon promises that if terrorism stops, he'll make painful compromises to midwife a Palestinian state. But many doubt it, given his past support for the Jewish settlers and his opposition to most previous peace efforts.

Palestinian analyst Khalil Shikaki said the road map was "likely to fail" and he expected the next idea to be international forces taking over and administering the Palestinian areas -- which the United States has so far resisted.

If the sides somehow arrive safely at Phase III, they will hit the bedrock issues that scuttled the last negotiations.

Here, Abbas' positions differ little from Arafat's.

The Palestinians insist on getting all of the West Bank and Gaza, noting that Israel would still have four-fifths of historic Palestine. But Israel would then be a vulnerable 12 miles wide at its narrowest and most populous point, and even dovish Israelis want balk at that prospect.

The Palestinians want east Jerusalem for their capital. But it is ringed by Jewish high-rises, and an explosive deadlock looms over the hilltop Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims the Haram-a-Sharif.

Perhaps most difficult, the Palestinians insist on the right of some 4 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants to reclaim homes and property they lost when Israel became a state in 1948. Israelis say their country with its 5 million Jewish citizens would cease to exist as a Jewish state.

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