Road map detour /
Bad timing puts Mideast peace plan on hold

Thursday, March 20, 2003

The U.S. role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the single most important long-term, contentious issue in America's relations with the Muslim world. The poignancy of the problem was brought close to home again Sunday when a young American woman, Rachel Corrie, was killed by an Israeli bulldozer while trying to prevent destruction of a Palestinian home in Gaza.

The next step in marking out a path to a viable long-term resolution of the issues in that conflict was the presentation to the concerned parties of a "road map" -- a peace plan carefully devised by the Quartet, comprising the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.

This finally occurred on Friday. At the same time, it is clear that virtually nothing can be done about the Israeli-Palestinian problem while the outcome of the Iraq war hangs unsettled over the head of the world. In that sense, the Bush administration's release of the road map may have been unhelpful in terms of improving long-term prospects for peace.

Earlier this month, administration officials said the road map was being put on hold until the issue of war with Iraq was resolved. Although the shelving of the peace plan was attributed at the time in part to a desire to spite the Europeans, who attach great importance to it, there was also logic in putting the plan on hold in the face of a major war in the Middle East.

It would be impossible, for example, for the United States to ask Israel to carry out its end of the deal with Israel itself in the process of battening down the hatches in anticipation of possible Iraqi missile attacks. The United States instead will be seeking to limit an Israeli response to such attacks if they occur, as they did during the 1991 Gulf war.

Israel also has on the table a request to the United States for $12 billion in new military aid, in addition to its annual $3 billion, as compensation for losses it may incur and additional defense measures it will deploy during a war with Iraq.

The Palestinians are in some disarray as well. A prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, has been named, meeting to some degree the goal of the removal from the political scene of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. At the same time, the wily Mr. Arafat is still around, and the delineation of authority between him and the new prime minister is still under dispute among the Palestinians.

Nonetheless, British Prime Minister Tony Blair felt that a road-map peace plan on the table would help his own credibility at home in defending his support of the U.S. position on an Iraq war. President Bush gave him that card to play on Friday.

The need for the road map is clear. It puts forward useful steps toward a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian problem. Mr. Bush's statement regarding it was constructive in its commitment to a "two-state" resolution of the problem.

At the same time, the timing of the release of the road map meant that its prospects for implementation have been made hostage to the outcome of war with Iraq. They were that in any case, but the long-awaited road map to peace in the Middle East should not have been put forward as a footnote to the march to war with Iraq.

Resolution of the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians remains the key to long-term Middle East peace and stability, for all parties involved, including the United States, during and after an Iraq war. The presentation of the road map constitutes progress in that regard; the choice of timing, the eve of a war in the region, was not helpful.

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