THE original timetable of the Middle East "road map" - the plan given to Israel and the Palestinian Authority three years ago with the aim of restarting the political process between them - is set to expire at the end of this year. While many, buoyed by Israel's Gaza withdrawal and the emergence of a seemingly more moderate Palestinian Authority, may believe there is still a future for the road map, the fact is that unless it is revised, the plan will serve primarily as a pretext for delay by those who don't want to return to the negotiating table.
Think back to April 2003: Yasir Arafat was the head of the Palestinian Authority and was not perceived by Israelis as a legitimate political partner; Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel was not prepared to continue with the decade-old Oslo Accords; and there was no end in sight to the cycle of terror-retaliation-terror. Under those circumstances, the so-called quartet, headed by the United States with Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, proposed a plan that required the parties to fulfill a series of interim pledges before returning to talks about the permanent status of Israel and the Palestinians.
Under the road map, Israel was supposed to freeze the building of settlements in the occupied territories by May 2003; the Palestinians were to undertake comprehensive political reform, shut down terrorist groups like Hamas, and collect all unauthorized weapons. By 2004, the two sides were supposed to agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state with provisional borders. And by the end of 2005 they were supposed to reach a permanent agreement. The quartet, for its part, was supposed to monitor both sides' compliance and authorize them to move from one phase to the next.
All three parties have failed to fulfill their commitments. The quartet has failed to conduct serious monitoring. The Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, who is meeting with President Bush in Washington today, has chosen to reach a cease-fire with Hamas rather than fight it. Mr. Sharon, despite pulling out of Gaza, isn't even contemplating freezing all construction in the West Bank; instead, in blatant disregard of the road map's dictums, he feels he need not start to fulfill his side of the bargain until Palestinians do what is required of them.
At today's meeting, President Bush has several options. He could seek to revise the original dates in the road map, and propose that the parties reach a permanent-status agreement by, say, the end of 2008 (when he can pass the buck to the next president).
Or he could bravely propose a new political model that takes into account the new circumstances and shepherds the parties into real talks on a permanent agreement, perhaps modeled on the unofficial Geneva initiative of 2003, of which I was the leading Israeli negotiator. The chances of this happening, unfortunately, are negligible.
Most likely, President Bush will again call Mr. Abbas a worthy partner, and the pair will re-state their commitment to the road map without any real intention of ever fulfilling it. The road map's deadlines will pass without fanfare, and the plan itself will gradually expire without any formal declaration. After all, next year brings elections in the Palestinian Authority and Israel, and there will be few external demands for political progress. In this vacuum, frustration will grow and extremism will thrive, leading to a resumption of violence.
But there is another option: Mr. Bush could acknowledge the total lack of willingness on all sides to complete even the first phase of the road map, admit the futility of further efforts to kick-start it, and announce that he is shelving the plan, releasing the parties from their obligations. Killing the road map would at least bring a touch of honesty to the current charade, and would signal to the world that a serious alternative has to be worked out even as we enter next year's elections.
President Bush need do no more than show a little courage and press the "reset" button in order to make a genuine contribution to peace in the Middle East.