Bush moves an inch on the Mideast

Under heavy pressure from British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the president finally raises the Israeli-Palestinian issue. But does he really intend to solve it?

Published March 19, 2003 8:38PM (EST)

The last-minute round of prewar diplomacy on Iraq gave rise to an old issue, which has long been on the back burner of American foreign policy: the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. For the better part of last year, the bloody conflict in the Holy Land went on with minimal interference from the outside world. President Bush laid out his policy in a speech last June, calling for Palestinian reform and leadership change, and then turned his attention elsewhere, preparing to attack Saddam Hussein.

Last Friday, however, Bush broke his silence. As he prepared to depart for the war summit in the Azores, the president gave a short statement from the White House, in which he pledged a "personal commitment" to implement his peaceful vision of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security. That vision is based on the "road map," a staged plan for settling the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, developed late last year by diplomats from the U.S., the European Union, Russia and the U.N. (collectively known as the "Quartet.")

In his statement, Bush used the road map to give a carrot-and-stick treatment to the Palestinians. He promised to present the plan to both sides (the document has already been distributed unofficially), immediately upon the confirmation of a new Palestinian prime minister, Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), the longtime No. 2 man in the PLO leadership. On March 10, the Palestinian legislative body approved the future prime minister's roles and authority, rebuffing attempts by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to retain more control. The developments were the result of strong international and domestic pressure on Arafat to relinquish some of his powers to Abu Mazen. Unlike Arafat, who has become a pariah to the Israeli and American governments, Abu Mazen is seen as a moderate, untouched by involvement in terrorism. Abu Mazen has called for a halt to the armed intifada against Israel and the resumption of peace negotiations.

The timing and logic of this American maneuver had more to do with Iraq, though, than with a genuine interest in Israeli-Arab peacemaking. As prewar diplomacy soured and Washington found itself more and more isolated throughout the international community, Bush had to pay growing attention to his most credible ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In recent months, Blair has become the patron of the Palestinian cause, assuming the role formerly played by Arab powers like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. He hosted several conferences in London to promote reform and economic aid for the troubled Palestinians. In his recent meetings with the American president, Blair demanded that Bush not neglect the other Middle East crisis when dealing with Iraq. A similar message came from his Spanish counterpart, Jose Maria Aznar. Both asked Bush to deal with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in return for their support of Bush's war against Saddam.

Blair's motivations are no less cynical than Bush's. While European unity has been torn over the Iraqi campaign, there is strong consensus on the continent for the need to stop the vicious cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians and to bring an end to the Israeli occupation and settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, which are seen as the root of trouble. France and Germany, who have led the opposition to Bush in Europe, have remained largely silent on the Palestinian-Israeli issue, since they don't have to prove their peace credentials. But the leaders of Britain and Spain, America's allies in the old world, are going up against the overwhelmingly antiwar public opinion in their countries and are trying to make up some of their losses by embracing the Palestinians, a pet issue for European liberals. In other words, Blair and Aznar have called for ending the Israeli occupation, in order to legitimize, or at least make more politically palatable, their own occupation of Baghdad, Mossul and Basra.

For its part, Washington has been extremely reluctant to step back into the Israeli-Palestinian political minefield. The Arabs and Europeans were eager for the road map to be published as a blueprint for the peace process. But when Sharon asked Bush last November to postpone the road map's publication until Israel's election had taken place, the White House concurred without much hesitation. The deadline was then extended until the inauguration of the new Israeli cabinet on Feb. 27. And then, in a meeting with his European counterparts, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell hinted that the road map would probably have to wait for the Iraqi war.

But on March 11, as the war drew near, Washington decided to help Blair and give the appearance of greater even-handedness in the region by finally making a statement on Israel and the Palestinians. The approval by the Palestinian legislature of the new prime minister's job offered a good pretext. The White House sent a message to Israel saying that the new prime minister should be encouraged and strengthened.

According to the Israeli version, two senior aides to Sharon, his bureau chief Dov Weisglass and national security advisor Ephraim Halevy, were en route to Washington to discuss the planned Iraqi war with Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. national security advisor. When they arrived on Wednesday morning, March 12, they found that the agenda had changed, that the Americans wanted to discuss the road map for peace with the Palestinians. During the next three and a half hours, Rice and her aides acknowledged the Blair connection and the importance of the Iraqi deadline, but told the Israelis that the timing was related to the Abu Mazen appointment. They briefed Weisglass and Halevi on the president's planned statement and said that it was meant to pressure the Palestinians to give their prime minister real authority.

On March 14, Rice invited American Jewish leaders to a meeting where she explained the road-map statement. According to one of the participants, Rice tried to calm her guests: "You know who the president is and where he stands on Israel. Don't be worried." Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, protested the linkage made between Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and accused the administration of "surrendering" to European and Arab pressures to present the road map.

From Sharon's perspective, the quid pro quo was the American agreement to accept Israeli "contributions" to the road-map text. A special interagency committee, headed by Weisglass, has been working in recent weeks to prepare Israel's official response to the plan. The draft document, written as Israel's version of the road map, contains dozens of deletions and additions to the original text. Sharon told Bush that Israel would accept only a road map that accurately reflects the president's June 24 speech, in which he put the onus on the Palestinians to stop their terror attacks and replace Arafat, without calling for any corresponding moves on the Israeli side. The Israeli corrections were ostensibly intended to make the road map conform to Bush's language. In fact, they make tougher demands on the Palestinians, while loosening the Israeli commitments.

The road map lays out three stages, spread over three years. First comes a cease-fire, followed by Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian-controlled areas and the rebuilding of Palestinian institutions. When this stage is over, as determined by a monitoring body under the auspices of the international Quartet, an international peace conference will pave the way for a Palestinian state with interim borders. This newborn state will then negotiate final status issues with Israel.

True to form, Sharon has never rejected the road map; on the contrary, while he has never formally accepted it, he has uttered vaguely positive words about it in private. The dirty work was left for others. Last week, Mortimer Zuckerman, chairman of the conference of presidents of major American Jewish organizations, published a fierce article against the road map in his magazine, U.S. News & World Report. Zuckerman blamed State Department officials and the Quartet for distorting Bush's vision and called the road map "a road to perdition." According to Israeli sources, while Zuckerman does not necessarily reflect Israel's official position, he was briefed by Israeli officials before writing his attack.

The document containing the Israeli response reflects Sharon's attitude. A non-final draft I obtained preserves the original road map's goals and structure. But crucial details have been changed. All mention of the interim Palestinian state as "independent" have been removed. The explanation: There is no clear definition of "independent," and Bush has not used the word. The Israeli drafters also reject the road map's demand that Israel "immediately" dismantle settlement outposts established during Sharon's tenure, proposing instead only to "enforce the law in relation" to the outposts. Israel agrees to freeze settlement construction only after a "continuous and comprehensive security calm" takes place, and even then, it insists that the "natural growth" of the settlements be allowed. And so on.

Sharon has made a political fortune by agreeing to Palestinian statehood, thus presenting himself as a moderate and winning reelection on a centrist platform. In truth, Sharon will accept only a tiny Palestinian state, with interim borders and limited sovereignty, surrounded and divided by Israeli forces, settlements, fences and security roads. On Sunday, he took his ministers to watch the construction of Israel's "separation fence" around the West Bank. During the tour, he revealed his plan to build a parallel fence on the other (eastern) side, to separate the populated West Bank areas from Israel's "security zone" in the Jordan Valley. A Likud minister observed later that Sharon's visionary Palestinian state would be locked up between the two security fences.

For the past two years Sharon has avoided negotiations, which might involve territorial concessions, by refusing to deal with the terror-supporting Arafat. Since early 2002, Bush has embraced that position and has also refused to talk to the veteran Palestinian leader. The emergence of Abu Mazen as a new partner for dialogue presents Sharon with both a victory and a challenge. After pushing so hard for his appointment, Sharon will have to interact with his fellow prime minister; the two men have met before and have no personal grudges. Rice has already pledged to invite the new leader to the White House, from which Arafat, once a frequent visitor, has been excluded during this administration. Bush called the Israelis and Palestinians to discuss the road map directly with them.

But will Washington push Sharon for serious negotiations after the Iraqi war? Israeli officials are optimistic that the current administration will stay by Israel's side. "The president needs two groups for his reelection, the [Christian] evangelicals and the Jews, and will not risk alienating them," a foreign ministry official told me. At Sharon's office, aides gave a positive spin to the Bush statement and said that the real schedule for negotiations has been "scaled back to square one," since the president had merely opened the door for more and more discussions on the road map.

Other Israeli analysts, however, are alarmed by Bush's change of mind under Blair's pressure. They see the Abu Mazen appointment, together with the publication of the road map, as net gains for the Palestinians, who made good use of the Iraqi crisis. By putting Abu Mazen up front, the Palestinians are preventing Israel from using the war to expel Arafat. And following the official presentation, Israelis will find it harder to change the road map language.

Realistically, however, the moment of truth for Mideast diplomacy will come only when the fighting in Iraq is settled and the regional stage is set for the next phase of the "new American order." Until then, there will be only more empty talk and time passing, as everybody prepares for the day after.

By Aluf Benn

Aluf Benn is the diplomatic editor of the Israeli daily Haaretz and has been a regular contributor to Salon since 2001.


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