'Road Map' for Mideast Forces
U.S. Into a Bind
By Shibley Telhami
May 13, 2003
The Bush administration's dilemma is clear as U.S. Secretary of State
Colin L. Powell winds down his trip to the Mideast to push for implementation
of the "road map" that the administration has unveiled with Russia, the
Europeans and the United Nations.
On one side, President George W. Bush has stated that he is personally
committed to establishing a Palestinian state within three years and to
the road map drawn up to get there. This commitment binds him publicly
at home and abroad, where the United States has been accused of not following
through on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
On the other side, it is clear that the road map was designed to deflect
international pressure to revive Arab-Israeli negotiations before the
Iraq war. The terms of the road map are therefore more reflective of political
calculations and the necessary compromises than they are of a plan that
can be implemented.
So the administration is in a tough bind.
Without significant international intervention, the road map is entirely
dependent on the goodwill of Israelis and Palestinians, and there is very
little goodwill between them today.
The road map is effective only if it is accepted as a whole, without revisions.
For if it is opened to negotiation, there would be a challenge every step
of the way. Yet it is clear that Israel has reservations, rendering reliance
on good will unwise.
If the administration abandons the road map, or opens it to negotiation,
its credibility will be on the line and it will be hard-pressed to put
forth a better alternative. If it decides to push through with the road
map's implementation, it will have to elevate mediating the Arab-Israeli
conflict to the top of its priorities. Without such a commitment from
the White House, it is difficult to imagine that the administration would
succeed in overcoming the many obstacles, which require using U.S. influence
and political capital.
Such leverage would inevitably come at the expense of other important
issues, such as North Korea, the challenge in Iraq, the war on terrorism,
the economy and the forthcoming election campaign. Clearly, a U.S. role
is essential for the success of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, especially
given the prevailing mistrust. But it is also obvious that ultimate success
depends on Palestinian politics, Israeli politics and the role of the
In that regard, the formation of a Palestinian cabinet headed by Prime
Minister Mahmoud Abbas is a positive step that at a minimum gives the
United States and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
the opportunity to revive the dialogue. It remains to be seen whether
the Palestinian government can implement the vision set out by Abbas.
The extent to which his vision will clash with Yasser Arafat's will also
be a factor. But in the end, one man is in the driver's seat: Ariel Sharon.
There is much the Palestinians can do, but there is little they can do
without Sharon's help. The Palestinian Authority and its security forces
are a shadow of what they were, at least in the West Bank, where much
of the Palestinian infrastructure has been destroyed.
In Gaza, where the PA has more influence, confrontation with Hamas and
other militant groups could be self-destructive unless the PA gains Palestinian
public support. To do this, it needs Israeli actions (troop withdrawals,
an end to curfews and checkpoints) and, more important, a revival of real
hope that a negotiated settlement is possible.
Sharon therefore has critical decisions to make that will affect the course
of negotiations. Certainly these decisions are dependent on the outcome
of the recent leadership change within the Labor Party, which may result
in a new national unity government that reduces the influence of the ultra
Sharon assumes, probably correctly, that the Bush administration, which
has carved out a close relationship with his government, is not likely
to challenge him as it enters an election year. He might have to decide
whether he wants to seek an agreement with the Palestinians in the coming
months or whether he prefers to continue relying on unilateral measures
in the West Bank and Gaza.
If he prefers to avoid implementing the road map, he might see a new opportunity
to revive Syrian-Israeli negotiations as a way of shifting attention.
The sense that Syria is on the defensive after the Iraq war and the fact
that Syria has sent a message of interest in renewing negotiations might
provide Sharon with an opening, if this is his choice.
This would be a mistake if it came at the expense of the urgent need to
address the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, in which violence, death and
occupation provide compelling moral reasons to move forward, even aside
from the strategic imperative.
To succeed in those negotiations, there is a need for reaching understanding
in the coming weeks among Bush, Sharon and Abbas. No real progress is
likely before then.
Shibley Telhami is a professor at the University of Maryland and a senior
fellow at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution.
is a professor at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow at the
Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. This first appeared in the
2003, Newsday, Inc.
This article also
appeared in the Baltimore Sun on Friday, May 9, 2003.