Posted on April 07, 2003 in Washington Watch

The heated discussion in the United States regarding the release of the Middle East peace “roadmap” is really quite interesting to observe. The document, a product of the Quartet (United States, Russia, the European Union and the U.N.), was ready for release many months ago, but has been withheld by the Bush Administration. At each point, the Administration has provided different reasons for the delay.

In late 2002 when the roadmap was expected, Washington’s advocates for release lost the internal debate to those seeking a delay. At that time, Israel was in the lead up to national elections and roadmap advocates within Israel and the United States hoped that by putting the document before the public, it would help to promote a national debate on the steps needed to move toward a resumption of the peace process.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and supporters of his Likud government sought to delay release of the roadmap until after the election, and their pressure apparently won the day. Some Washington analysts speculate whether or not it was a coincidence that shortly after the decision was made to delay release of the roadmap that those in the White House who had been advocating for the document’s quick release were removed from their posts.

In any case, when the Administration announced that the roadmap would not be made public until after the Israeli elections, Sharon and company breathed a sigh of relief that their campaign would not be encumbered by external pressure.

With the Israeli elections over, the debate about the roadmap’s release resurfaced once again with peace advocates calling for the document’s issuance. The war with Iraq was looming and some felt that a U.S. recommitment to an international effort to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process would send an important signal to both the Arab world and to Europe as well. Here, the U.S. supporters of the roadmap found an ally in the person of United Kingdom Prime Minister Tony Blair. Once again, however, this group lost the debate and two new reasons were put forward for the delay. An argument was made that the roadmap should not be released before the war, so as to avoid any appearance of “linkage”. A second and new reason was put forward as well. The Administration argued that it would only present the roadmap to the parties when a “fully functioning” and “independent” Palestinian Prime Minister was installed in office.

Now, with the Iraq war well underway, and the process leading to the establishment of a Palestinian Prime Minister with a new Cabinet nearing completion, the world is awaiting the arrival of the long delayed roadmap. At this point, the supporters of Israel have changed their approach. Instead of seeking to further delay the issuance of the document, they are working to modify it before it is released–in their continuing effort to frustrate any restart of a meaningful peacemaking process.

Since the roadmap has never been formally issued and unofficial drafts of the document remain difficult to find, most of the discussion about the illusive roadmap resembles shooting in the dark at a hidden target.

A draft, available on a Palestinian Ministry website, reveals some insight into what may concern the Israeli side. As it appears in the draft, the road map represents a wedding of President Bush’s vision for two states with both the Tenet and Mitchell plans. As such, the road map endorses the idea that Israeli security, the end of occupation and the emergence of a peaceful, democratic Palestinian state are inextricably intertwined. With the ultimate goal of two secure and independent states, the road map, like the Mitchell plan, provides a series of simultaneous and progressive steps that will assist the parties’ return to the path of peace.

The objections raised by Israel’s supporters focus on five points. They oppose the notion of “simultaneous steps”–a replay of their objections to the earlier Mitchell Plan which proposed that the parties agree upfront to steps that each must take. Israel’s supporters counter with the demand that steps to be taken must not be simultaneous, but sequential, with the Palestinians first fulfilling all of their requirements and, only then would the Israelis be required to act. To make their point Israel’s supporters also draw on President Bush’s June 24, 2002 speech in which he endorsed Sharon’s sequential approach to peace. Israel supporters also object to the roadmap’s mandates and timetables. Israel wants the stipulation that the roadmap’s call for a provisional Palestinian state be based not on a mandate but on Israeli Palestinian negotiation and the completion of an Israeli-Palestinian treaty. Israel’s supporters also want to eliminate the roadmap’s mention of Crown Prince Abdallah’s initiative–as endorsed by the Arab League Summit–since that initiative speaks of Israel’s return to the June 1967 borders. Finally, they want the roadmap to specifically call for Palestinian acceptance of Israel as a Jewish State meaning that Palestinians would agree upfront to relinquish the right of return.

In this context, developments during last week’s Washington meeting of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Israeli lobby, are worth noting. One of AIPAC’s political demands coming out of that meeting, was to pressure members of Congress to endorse Israel’s concerns. Toward that end they called for legislation to send a clear message to the Administration to modify the roadmap to meet Israel’s requirements. Already letters are circulating in both the House and Senate endorsing these demands and calling on the Administration to place the burdens of restoring the peace process solely on the Palestinians’ shoulders. In an especially virulent speech, House Majority Leader, Republican, Tom Delay criticized the supporters of the roadmap stating that “negotiations with [the Palestinian Authority] is folly, and any agreement arrived at through such empty negotiations would amount to a covenant with death.”

Thus far, the response of the Administration has been to hold firm. The United States UN Ambassador, Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condalezza Rice were all quite clear in rejecting any pressure to change the roadmap. While President Bush may have given the Likud government a signal of softness when he addressed the roadmap issue during his March 14th Rose Garden speech indicating that he was open to the views of the parties, Rice closed that door making it clear that what the President meant were that comments might be welcome but that the document itself was not subject to renegotiation.

A counter campaign launched by some Arab Americans and American Jewish supporters of the peace process has also begun, with these peace advocates calling for an immediate release and full implementation of the roadmap as is.

It is not clear who will win, but if history is any judge of the matter, congressional pressure will no doubt have an impact on the Administration.

Even if the roadmap is finally issued and remains in its present form–assuming that the available draft is accurate–real problems remain. This roadmap only leads the parties back to the negotiation table; it does not provide a map to move the negotiations toward their desired end. Unless a way is found to address the asymmetry of power, that has to date frustrated all previous efforts at Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, the roadmap, even in its best form, will only lead to an impasse.

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