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 each electorally.

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 Holy Land.

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?"

In conversation, 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 needed.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

This article also appeared in the Houston Chronicle on Thursday, May 29, 2003 and in the Chicago Tribune on Friday, May 30, 2003.