Israel says yes (maybe) / Cabinet conditionally ratifies a 'road map' for peace

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

Nothing is simple in Middle Eastern diplomacy, so it isn't surprising that the Israeli Cabinet's acceptance of an international "road map" to peace with the Palestinians was hedged with conditions.

Still, there is good reason to accentuate the positive in Sunday's Cabinet vote: An Israeli government headed by the hard-line Ariel Sharon has signed on to the concept of a Palestinian state and has endorsed, however conditionally, a "map" whose signposts include the dismantling of recent Jewish settlements on the West Bank and restrictions on the growth of older ones.

Sunday's notable sound bite came from Prime Minister Sharon: "The moment has arrived to divide this tract of land between us and the Palestinians."

Actually, the moment could have arrived a quarter of a century ago when Israel signed the Camp David accords with Egypt. Those accords held out the promise not only of peace between Israel and Egypt but also a resolution of the Palestinian problem.

But the opportunity was squandered by all sides -- Arab nations that rejected compromise, the Palestine Liberation Organization which saw Camp David as a sellout and successive Israeli governments that allowed the proliferation of Jewish settlements on territory that would be part of any Palestinian homeland.

A decade ago, it seemed that both Israelis and Palestinians had decided to make up for lost opportunities. The Oslo peace negotiations, followed by the dramatic signing in September 1993 of an Israeli-PLO agreement on the White House lawn, launched a new round of negotiations and the laying of the groundwork for a Palestinian state.

That process came close to producing an agreement during the Clinton administration, but mutual trust was lacking. Then there was Ariel Sharon's Sept. 28, 2000, visit to Jerusalem's Temple Mount, a violent reaction from Palestinians, and a new nightmare of violence in which suicide bombers terrorized innocent Israelis and Israel retaliated against Palestinian political institutions.

The "road map" proposed by the so-called Quartet -- the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union -- is an attempt to put the peace process back on track. Its details and timetables are less important than its vision of a two-state solution in which Israel and a Palestinian state would leave peacefully side by side and in which Jewish and Arab interests in Jerusalem would be accommodated.

There is nothing new about this vision. What makes the road map important is the prestige of its sponsors, especially the United States, Israel's chief protector and the country that just toppled the regime of its enemy Saddam Hussein.

The road map imposes conditions on the Palestinians as well, including the end of Palestinian incitement against Israel. Israelis who would have scoffed at those provisions when Yasser Arafat was synonymous with the Palestinian Authority may be less skeptical now that much of Mr. Arafat's authority has passed to Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, with whom Mr. Sharon will meet this week.

Obviously, this peace train could be derailed again, either by new terrorist outrages or by endless diplomatic qualifications.

Even as Israel's Cabinet approved the road map, Cabinet members made clear that their acceptance of a Palestinian state depended on the renunciation by Palestinians of a "right to return" to areas in present-day Israel which their ancestors left in 1948 and thereafter.

Actually, the road map does not guarantee a right to return, which even Palestinians know is impractical. It speaks of "an agreed, just, fair and realistic solution to the refugee issue." That language would seem to raise the possibility of a compromise in which the vast majority of Palestinians would "return" not to Israel but to Palestinian-ruled areas.

A "right of return" isn't the only issue on which new negotiations could come unstuck. Palestinians likely will insist on the dismantling of a significant number of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Divisions in the Israeli government that Mr. Sharon was able to paper over might open up again. Yasser Arafat could still make problems for the more moderate Prime Minister Abbas. Finally, President Bush, whose political base includes some hard-line American supporters of Israel, might be tempted to relax pressure on Israel as the 2004 presidential election approaches.

The pitfalls are obvious, but so is the fact that there is no long-range alternative to the two-state solution envisioned by the road map. It's time for all parties to get moving.

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