'Road Map' Flaws Exposed
By Shibley Telhami
June 15, 2003
COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Last week's tragic exchange of bloodshed between
Israelis and Palestinians revealed three things about the prospects for
peace: The Aqaba conference didn't change the parties' self-defeating
propensity for tit-for-tat killing; the "road map" has serious flaws that
could ultimately undermine its implementation; and for the process to
succeed, President Bush will have to make the Middle East a top priority.
One central problem in the road map is that it asks each side to take
steps toward peace before knowing how the critical issues — the
fate of Palestinian refugees, borders, settlements, Jerusalem, water —
will be resolved. This means that every step will be fitfully taken out
of the fear that it will undermine one's leverage for the next one. The
certain knowledge that the opposition on both sides will challenge their
leaders' every step exacerbates the situation. The same kind of dynamic
helped undermine the Oslo accords, which aimed to build confidence incrementally.
Instead, it gave Israeli and Palestinian militants bountiful opportunities
to undermine the process.
In many ways, the road map faces more obstacles than the Oslo agreements.
Among the things going for it is that most Israelis and Palestinians have
reconciled themselves to the two-state solution. But the growing perception
on both sides that peace is ultimately impossible may become an insurmountable
At times during the Oslo process, the relationship between former Israeli
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Authority President Yasser
Arafat enabled them to conspire to undermine their opponents at home.
No such relationship exists among today's leaders. Every move is perceived
as tactical, designed to deflect international pressure and maneuver for
a better bargaining position. Palestinians who see in Israeli Prime Minister
Ariel Sharon the man responsible for the Sabra and Shatila massacres in
Lebanon in 1982 refuse to believe he has changed. And most Israelis believe
that even though Mahmoud Abbas is the Palestinian Authority's prime minister,
Arafat remains the real power behind the scenes and facilitates suicide
bombers. Trust has all but disappeared.
The failure of the Oslo process, after seven years of negotiations, has
made Israelis and Palestinians even more impatient. In the early days
of Oslo, when optimism prevailed, both sides were willing to accept mere
promises. Today, meetings, conferences, handshakes and words are occasions
for cynicism. Promises are dismissed. Only acts count — violent
acts, it seems.
What sustains the cycle of grief and killing is the belief, paradoxical
as it may seem, that retaliation is the only way to prevent the situation
from further deteriorating. If one side doesn't respond to provocation,
the thinking goes, the other will think it weak and hit it even harder.
Any attempt to move toward peace cannot succeed unless this self-defeating
dynamic is overcome.
The Bush administration's success in pushing for change within the Palestinian
Authority has shifted attention to what it can do to persuade Sharon to
move forward. Abbas has said all the right things, and probably means
them. His conciliatory speech in Aqaba — in which he denounced violence,
committed himself to disarm militants and omitted references to such emotional
issues as the right of return — boosted his stature in the U.S.
and in Israel. But it undermined his already low standing at home.
Even within the Palestinian Authority and among Palestinian moderates,
Abbas is regarded as America's man. Most Palestinians reject disarming
the militants before they see some real changes in their own lives, like
Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian cities. Disarmament, they fear, will
clear the way for Sharon's plans — even as Israel fears that any
withdrawal before the violence ends would weaken its hand.
The inequality of power between Israelis and Palestinians complicates
implementation of the road map. The Israeli army controls Palestinian
land and is able to punish Palestinians if they don't comply with the
road map. It can refuse to withdraw from Palestinian cities, as well as
impose curfews, arbitrarily establish checkpoints and make life in general
miserable for the Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority has no answer
for such power, which enables militant groups to gain some measure of
public support for their horrible deeds. This is one reason why international
mediation, including an effective monitoring role, will be indispensable
to the implementation of any peace plan.
Certainly, the Palestinians must end the suicide bombings, which are both
immoral and self-defeating. But Abbas needs two things to accomplish that
goal. First, the Palestinian Authority's security forces must be rebuilt.
In the past 2 1/2 years of violence, they, along with many Palestinian
institutions, have been devastated by the Israeli army. Second, Abbas
must attract the Palestinian public to his side, and for that he needs
Israeli and international support. For his part, and without jeopardizing
Israel's security, Sharon could dismantle a good number of settlements.
Just as suicide bombings have undermined Israeli confidence in Palestinian
intentions, so have settlements eroded Palestinian hopes that Israel will
withdraw from Palestinian lands.
Although progress toward peace will largely depend on the parties themselves,
U.S. mediation, to be successful in this difficult environment, cannot
be done on the cheap. Every step called for in the road map requires spending
political capital abroad and at home, possibly at the expense of other
issues. The Bush administration's commitment to peace, expressed most
clearly at Aqaba, faces an early test. If it cannot persuade Sharon to
refrain from militarily responding to every attack against it and to dismantle
promptly the few settlement outposts that his government deems unauthorized,
the road map is doomed to remain on the drawing boards. These challenges
are small compared with those that lie ahead.
is Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of
Maryland and senior fellow at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution.
2003 Los Angeles Times