Will Bush save the dying Middle East peace plan?

The road map is on life support, and only the U.S. can save it. But as the election looms, a weakened Bush is unlikely to risk confronting Israel and its U.S. supporters.

Published August 29, 2003 7:12PM (EDT)

The latest American-led attempt to make Middle East peace appears to have landed on the junk pile of its predecessors. Israelis and Palestinians are once again locked in their deadly dance. The Palestinian suicide bomber who blew himself up on the No. 2 bus in Jerusalem on Aug. 19 killed 21 people and prompted an Israeli decision to assassinate leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the main Palestinian terrorist groups. Those assassinations in turn led Hamas and Islamic Jihad to declare the end of the "hudna," the shaky Palestinian-declared cease-fire that had held on for seven weeks. And just like umpteen times before, the crisis was followed by a diplomatic effort to "revive the process."

In recent days, Israeli public attention has turned from the Palestinian front to domestic affairs, in particular the criminal investigation of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the surprising divorce of his predecessor, Ehud Barak, while the Palestinian Authority has become entangled in yet another leadership contest. Yasser Arafat, the veteran Palestinian leader, has cleverly used the current crisis to gain back power and political relevance. His rivals, Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (also known by his nom de guerre, Abu Mazen) and defense minister Muhammad Dahlan, are fighting a survival battle on three fronts: trying simultaneously to remain in power, to fend off American and Israeli pressure to fight Hamas, and to rein in the Islamic organizations -- a Herculean task even under better circumstances.

So far, the United States has watched the collapse of its peace efforts without taking any risky steps to shore it up. It has all but completely aligned itself with Israel's position, putting almost all the blame on the militant Palestinian groups and applying formidable pressure on Abbas and Dahlan to start fighting terrorism. But this approach is unlikely to yield results. And so when President George W. Bush returns to Washington from his Texas vacation, he will face a crucial decision: Should he commit the United States to a genuinely serious, but politically risky, effort to resolve the conflict, or make do with paying diplomatic lip service to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis while turning all his attention to his reelection effort?

Only three months ago, Bush surprised many spectators with his determined effort to launch the Mideast diplomatic process, based on the "road map," the internationally agreed three-stage, three-year plan to end the conflict and establish a Palestinian state. The president's personal intervention led Israel to formally accept the road map, and pressed the Palestinians to appoint Abbas as their prime minister, replacing the literally besieged Arafat, who has been shunned by American officials and confined to his Ramallah compound since June 2002. Bush traveled to the region in early June, and at the Aqaba summit, in his presence, both Sharon and Abbas made public pledges to work for peace. Abbas spoke about ending terrorism; Sharon vowed to dismantle "unauthorized" Jewish settlements in the West Bank and to support an eventual Palestinian state with territorial contiguity. In late June, the main Palestinian factions declared a "hudna," or temporary cease-fire. Israel officially ignored the hudna, warning that the terrorist groups would use it to rearm, but people on both sides loved the period of peace it ushered in.

Public support was not enough, however, to keep the process alive and moving forward. With Bush gone, both sides did as little as possible to fulfill their pledges. Soon enough, the thin layer of trust between Sharon and Abbas all but evaporated. The atmosphere of partnership and cooperation gave way to the old blame game, and then to renewed violence.

What went wrong? Both sides have done their best to score points with the Americans, but have shirked the necessary showdown with domestic enemies of the process. Saying they fear a civil war, Abbas and Dahlan have flatly refused to confront Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Brigades (the militant wing of their own Fatah faction). Instead, they have tried to talk them out of terrorism. At the same time, Sharon has refused to take on the West Bank settlers, who enjoy strong support within his governing coalition. Instead, both sides have taken the easy way out: Sharon by making a big, televised deal out of the dismantling of minor settlement outposts (which were promptly rebuilt the next day), the Palestinians by deploying Palestinian security forces and erasing anti-Israel graffiti in Gaza. The Palestinians rejected Israel's "gestures," such as releasing some prisoners and removing some roadblocks, as insults. The Israelis warned that Hamas was rebuilding its severely damaged military infrastructure , including the test firing of longer-range Kassam rockets.

The truth is that the basic elements of the conflict remain unchanged -- and neither adversary is ready to take bold decisions or make real concessions. The Israeli leadership is unwilling to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza and dismantle the settlements. The Palestinian leadership is not prepared to challenge the radicals who reject the very existence of a Jewish state. The problem is that the road map, like the Oslo peace process before it, postponed dealing with these core issues, favoring an incremental advance in which both sides were supposed to build trust through small, mutual steps. This approach was tailored to Sharon's tough stance and his refusal to accept more than a modest interim deal. By focusing on "attainable" goals, it made things politically easier for both leaders, but it also ensured mistrust lingered, since neither side could be sure whether the other ultimately intended to fulfill its promises. This mistrust made it easy for minor stumbles to blow up into deal-breakers. Nor did the road map inspire people on either side; wary and skeptical, they could hardly be enthused by its bureaucratic lingo and character.

How sincere was Sharon? There are two schools of thought. Many Israeli politicians and American officials believe that he came into the process with sincere intentions, and was even ready to take some political heat. If he had only met a credible Palestinian partner, according to this line of thought, Sharon would have moved forward quickly, for instance in removing the outposts. But when he realized that Abbas was weak, and would not deliver the goods in fighting terrorism, Sharon reverted to his usual suspicion and skepticism and merely tried to cut his political losses.

Others argue that Sharon and his aides believed from the beginning that the road map was bound to collapse, and indeed wanted it to, and that their strategy was to pin the blame on the Palestinian side, while positioning Israel as blameless. To this end, Israel made its "gestures" only grudgingly and under American prodding.

When the process threatened to halt, following two suicide bombings about two weeks ago, Israeli defense minister Shaul Mofaz tried to save it by proposing to withdraw from four West Bank cities, thus giving Dahlan and Abbas more power. The negotiations were still under way, and hotly debated within the Israeli security establishment, when the Jerusalem attack -- which Hamas claimed was in retaliation for the assassinations of two of its men -- put them to rest.

Unfortunately for the process, the past three months have not only seen the burnout of the road map, but also considerable weakening of the relevant political players. In the late spring, Bush, Sharon and Abbas were at the height of their powers. The American president had just won his blitzkrieg in Iraq; the Israeli premier had won reelection in a landslide; and their new Palestinian buddy had taken office with great hopes. The three leaders' clout appeared to be a winning combination at the time. Alas, it has quickly eroded.

Iraq has turned out to be a quagmire, as the U.S. has sunk into the mud of an unwanted occupation of an ungrateful Arab society. The bad news from Baghdad has been reflected, naturally, on Bush's standing at the polls and his chances for reelection. Israeli politicians, quick to smell weakness, are speaking openly about Bush's growing troubles at home.

Abbas is still fighting for legitimacy with his people, who suspect that he is America's and Israel's puppet. His main achievements so far have been his acceptance at the White House, where Arafat is banned, and his successful lobbying of Bush against the Israeli security barrier, or fence, in the West Bank. (Palestinians have charged that the erection of the barrier is Israel's attempt to create a de facto border, including Palestinian land, before the issue is politically resolved. Bush has sided with the Palestinians.) But Abbas has failed, so far, to gain full control over the crucial Palestinian security forces, without which no crackdown on the radical groups can take place; large parts of them remain under Arafat's command.

Things are not much rosier for the Israeli leader. Sharon and one of his sons are under criminal investigation over campaign money trafficking and bribery suspicions. While an indictment of the prime minister is still unlikely, or at least far off, the investigation's progress ignited an early succession war in the ruling Likud party and weakened Sharon's standing with his ministers. The perceived failure of the road map-Aqaba process strengthened the hard-liners, who opposed it from the beginning, but also caused more moderate ministers to reconsider their positions. More and more, Israeli ministers are daring to take independent positions, and give Sharon a hard time. During last week's security Cabinet meeting, which debated how to retaliate for the Jerusalem bombing, several ministers refused to vote "aye" unless they were privy to the more delicate operational details. Sharon bowed to their pressure.

Even before that, defense minister Mofaz, despite being a proclaimed supporter of the peace process, had objected when Sharon, yielding to U.S. pressure, proposed moving the security barrier westward, away from the Israeli settlements and closer to the pre-1967 "green line" dividing Israel from the West Bank.

A month ago, a senior Israeli minister came to the United States and held a long lunch meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney. With Sharon's consent, the minister warned Cheney of the prime minister's growing domestic obstacles. "You tell us to help strengthen Abbas, but you should know that Sharon is also weak, and has little room to maneuver," the Israeli said, adding, "It's not because of the investigation. Sharon will come clean out of it." Israeli ministers told me that Sharon lacks a majority in his Cabinet for any concessions. Indeed, he had been able to approve the release of Palestinian prisoners, but in such limited numbers that the gesture was meaningless. In order to regain political support, Sharon will need to see serious progress on the Palestinian side -- meaning a real move against Hamas and the other terrorist groups.

Sharon's situation is mirrored on the Palestinian side. Few expect either Abbas (if he retains his office after an upcoming confidence vote), Arafat or any other Palestinian leader who might emerge to initiate a crackdown on the terrorist groups, unless the peace process yields far more tangible benefits for the Palestinians than it has so far.

Does this mean that the process is over and the road map dead and buried? Not yet. It's definitely on life support; nevertheless, all three involved parties have strong interests in reviving it, at least for a while. Both Israelis and Palestinians are exhausted, and desperately need a break from the consuming violence. Despite some promising signs, the Israeli economy is still in decline, and the military is facing deep budget cuts. Before the recent wave of violence, the IDF wanted to withdraw from most West Bank cities, realizing that holding them was costly and mostly ineffective in blocking terror attacks. Its reprisal campaign after the Jerusalem bombing focused on targeted assassinations, carried out with attack helicopters. Such operations demand far less resources than wide-range ground attacks, and save the need to recall reservists, an unpopular move under any circumstances.

The seven-week cease-fire brought relief to both sides, as people filled the beaches and cafes of Gaza and Tel Aviv. Politically, Sharon needs more quiet to regain his strength and fight the investigation's political implications. Israel, however, has vowed not to accept another cease-fire if the Palestinians will not dismantle the "terrorist infrastructure." Senior Israeli officials believe that Abbas depends on the road map's success for his political survival, and that even Arafat has a stake in the process, as he fears that if it collapses Washington will give Israel a green light to expel him.

On Wednesday, the power struggle in the Palestinian leadership flared up yet again, when Abbas' Cabinet decided to unite all the security forces under one command. Arafat responded with a public call to resume the "hudna" in return for an end to Israeli assassinations. In Jerusalem, officials watched these developments, but kept a low profile. Sharon spent the last week vacationing in his Shikmim (Sycamores) farm, keeping the political heat down. American envoy John Wolf traveled back and forth between Abbas, Dahlan and Sharon's bureau chief, Dov Weisglass, pressing the Palestinians to crack down on terrorism, and prodding the Israelis to give them one more chance.

The key player, as always, is Washington. The White House is closely watching the Mideast situation, and by all accounts, the president is updated daily and is still determined to push the process forward. The Americans warned Abbas that they would withdraw their support for him and for Palestinian statehood unless he acts on terrorism. Washington called the Europeans to include the civilian arm of Hamas on their list of terrorist organizations. But Bush has not put serious pressure on Sharon to make it easier for the Palestinian leadership to crack down on terror by making concessions. And U.S. involvement has remained limited to low-key diplomatic contacts in the field and policy speeches at home. Long experience, the painful collapse of one promising peace plan after another, shows that much more aggressive and higher-level American involvement is needed to bring results. Obviously, the real decisions have not yet been taken.

What will Bush do? His interest and motivation notwithstanding, at the end of the day political calculations will determine the president's actions. Bush is unlikely to risk his reelection, and his public prestige, in a diplomatic enterprise that stands a high chance of failure and will require a painful confrontation with Israel. If Bush thought he had a high chance of succeeding in making peace, and was so convinced of his reelection prospects that he felt willing to risk angering his political base and inviting attacks from his Democratic presidential challengers, he might make a bold move. But neither of those conditions exist, and most likely he will not do anything to disturb his Christian-right and Jewish supporters, who oppose any pressure on Israel. This month, about 100 Congress members, both Democrats and Republicans -- an unprecedented number -- came to Israel on various support and solidarity missions. This tour de force of the pro-Israel lobby is not, of course, lost on White House political strategists.

Which explains why the Americans are focusing their pressure almost exclusively on the Palestinian side, hoping to produce some movement on terrorism that could justify asking Israel to reciprocate -- by removing outposts, freezing settlement construction, and improving the quality of life for the Palestinians. It is a faint hope, but it is all either side has to cling to.

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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