Three Men and a Road Map
By Jim Hoagland
Thursday, May 29, 2003
With terrorist bombs
shaking the Saudi dynasty and the United States stumbling badly in its
first efforts to turn military victory into political stability in Iraq,
the scheduling of one more leadership meeting has to be seen as a tiny
event -- an ice cube of hope in a region in flames. But tiny is good in
the Middle East at this moment.
The June 4 meeting
in Jordan among President Bush, Israel's Ariel Sharon and the Palestinian
Authority's new prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, will bring together three
men who currently behave as if they are in search of something positive
to spotlight. That is a seed of change to be nourished.
The way was cleared
for the meeting, announced yesterday by the White House, by the Israeli
prime minister's decision over the weekend to accept the international
"road map" to a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Bush nudged Sharon into signing on to the process.
Make no mistake.
Each leader has tactical reasons for agreeing to show up in Aqaba. Sharon's
acceptance of the road map has the earmarks of a move made to deflect
American pressure -- more precisely, to maintain the political friendship
that Bush and Sharon present as a glowing and productive one that helps
And the road map
has loopholes galore. Its formal acceptance could well be the high point
of its utility, after which it could join the Jarring mission, the Rogers
plan, Camp David II and other high-minded exercises in the graveyard of
failed comprehensive Middle East peace initiatives.
Such plans are offered
up periodically to propitiate the merciless anger of the region, to encourage
talking instead of shooting -- even if only for a while. The road map
belongs to the tradition of the caring cynicism of peacemaking in the
Sharon and Abbas
should not so much follow the road map. They should use it to change the
leadership dynamic of mutual destruction that Sharon and Yasser Arafat
pursued with such abandon. Sharon's recent behavior suggests that he does
not want to see Abbas fail, at least not at this point. That is progress
of a kind. Bush is also emphasizing how far the Palestinians have come,
rather than how far they still have to go, in the reform process.
In accepting the
road map, Sharon has had to talk about his concept of peace with the Palestinians.
Here is what he said to a hostile audience of his Likud Party followers
Monday, as reported by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz:
"I think the idea
that it is possible to continue keeping 3.5 million Palestinians under
occupation -- yes, it is occupation, you might not like the word, but
what is happening is occupation -- is bad for Israel, and bad for the
Palestinians, and bad for the Israeli economy. . . . You want to remain
in Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah and Bethlehem?"
Sharon displays a careful attention to words and their deeper meanings
that is at odds with his widespread image as a gruff-to-boorish ex-general
and superhawk. He no doubt tasted the word "occupation" -- previously
off-limits to Israeli prime ministers and official spokesmen -- as bitter
medicine on his tongue before speaking it. He knows that words no longer
belong to you or mean only what you want them to mean once you have spoken
them. Like children leaving parents, words take on lives of their own.
Abbas is even more
cautious in what he says and how he approaches power. In his first weeks
in an office demanded by Bush and Sharon specifically to limit Arafat's
authority, Abbas has conducted himself as a serious figure, calmly resisting
Sharon's calculated demand for sweeping commitments as the price for Israeli
acceptance of the road map. Negotiation, he implicitly says, is about
give and take, not take-take-take as it was when Arafat ran the show.
An ice cube of hope
won't last long in the hot afternoon of Middle East history, especially
in a world beset by terror, war and economic malaise since 9/11. The suicide
bombers of Hamas and al Qaeda, the holdout Saddamists in Iraq and the
vigilante zealots among Israeli settlers stoke the fires of intolerance
to make sure of that.
That makes it all
the more important for Sharon and Abbas to demonstrate at Aqaba that they
can talk reasonably to each other about a peace that neither can grant
now. They must show that they understand that plans drawn up by committees
of outsiders will not on their own bring peace to the region. But the
road map can serve as a catalyst, or an excuse, for change that is badly
© 2003 The
Washington Post Company
article also appeared in the Houston Chronicle on Thursday, May
29, 2003 and in the Chicago Tribune on Friday, May 30, 2003.