July 25, 2003

All Road Maps Lead to Washington


With Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel and the Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, each heading to the White House in the next few days, optimism is in the air. After all, we have an American president eager to prove that the war in Iraq can lead to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, a right-wing Israeli leader who supports the establishment of a Palestinian state, and a Palestinian prime minister who is against the armed intifada. Also, the terrorists are holding their fire for the time being, and both sides have committed to Mr. Bush's "road map" to peace.

The actual situation, though, is far more complex and fragile. The quiet in the territories depends totally on the extremist Islamic groups, which have agreed only to a temporary cease-fire. Mr. Abbas, who is a prime minister without a state, lacks real control over the Palestinian security forces and has Yasir Arafat breathing down his neck.

In addition, the acceptance of the road map by Israel and the Palestinians may be misleading. In recent years both parties have preferred "yes, but" responses to new initiatives rather than the traditional "no, but" ones. They have welcomed every new plan the Mitchell report, the Tenet plan, the Zinni ideas, the Jordanian-Egyptian outline, the Saudi initiative but none was ever acted on. The problem with all these proposals was that no real efforts were made to explore ways to bridge the two sides' conflicting needs.

President Bush's job will be to sell a formula that would enable both leaders to continue the first phase of the road map (the cessation of terrorism and the crackdown on settlements that have been established since the Sharon government came to power in 2001) while ensuring that we make progress on the second phase, the creation of a temporary Palestinian entity with provisional boundaries, and then the third, a permanent state for the Palestinians with security for Israel, by the end of 2005.

It won't be easy. Mr. Sharon is really interested only in the second phase of the road map the interim Palestinian state while Mr. Abbas is interested only in the third, which will give him a viable nation and put an end to the Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.

Mr. Sharon wants to get to the second part of the road map quickly because creating a Palestinian entity covering about half of the West Bank would solve for him a huge demographic problem as things stand now, in seven years the Israeli government will rule over a larger number of Palestinians than Jews while leaving Israel a considerable part of the territories it captured in 1967.

He has far less interest, however, in relinquishing the rest of the territories, as would be required in the third phase. Undoubtedly, he would prefer if the settlement controversy stalled the road map, keeping the embittered Palestinians perpetually in a small, economically emaciated state with no capital or claim on Jerusalem.

Mr. Abbas, for his part, is wary of falling into Mr. Sharon's trap and would love to skip the second stage altogether. He fears that if the Palestinians are given a rump state, their conflict with Israel would be transformed from an uprising of global importance into a run-of-the-mill border skirmish, and that international impetus toward completing the third stage would wane.

Thus President Bush needs to propose a new way forward that will take into account these two leaders' different desires, abilities and fears. For one thing, while each side's demands concerning removing the Israeli settlements and dismantling the Palestinian terrorist groups are essential, I see no reason that the completion of these efforts has to be a prerequisite for beginning negotiations toward the interim Palestinian state. As long as the United States feels progress is being made by both sides, why not start talking about Stage 2? As for the two sides' contradictory interests concerning the second and third parts of the road map, Mr. Bush needs to make two relatively simple pledges. Mr. Sharon needs to go back to Israel knowing that if he goes along with dismantling the settlements and the interim agreement, America will not try to dictate to Israel the final shape and status of the Palestinian state. Those must come from negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

For his part, Mr. Abbas needs to be certain that if Mr. Sharon tries to drag his feet on final-status talks in hopes that the interim agreement will become a de facto permanent solution, Washington will accept a decision by the Palestinian government to dismantle its state on Dec. 31, 2005, or any time thereafter. This is the Palestinians' trump card the ability to make the process start over, burdening Israel again with its demographic problem, if the Israelis don't honor their part of the bargain.

Fair and transparent promises from Mr. Bush on these two fronts could transform the road map from a piece of paper (that both sides accepted largely to appease the United States) into a document that could resolve the most protracted international conflict of our time.

Yossi Beilin was a minister in the governments of Yithak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company