Bush at the Crossroads of the Road Map

There are those who say that it is wrong to attribute too much importance to domestic politics, since Bush knows that on Election Day, the right-wing Jewish-Christian coalition will not give their votes to the Democratic candidate.

The 10th anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Accord will take place in two weeks, but the chances of peace between Israel and the Palestinians appear many times smaller than the danger of the anniversary being marked by a mass-casualty terror attack in Israel and a new settlement outpost in the territories.

Astonishingly, even after 10 years, thousands of dead and wounded and billions of shekels lost, there are no signs on the political horizon of any conclusions being drawn from the mortal situations of both parties. More than any other, the conclusion that cries out to heaven is that the hawks cannot make peace on their own. In the coming days, it will become clear whether the United States, the primary patron, will once again stand aside, or whether, on the brink of the abyss, it will stretch out a hand to both sides.

Just as in the period after the Oslo Accord was signed, in the absence of aggressive external monitoring, the interim stages of the road map have turned into a mad dash to erect new obstacles on the ground. The hope of the map's drafters - that it would succeed where previous plans had failed - is being revealed as vain. This hope was based primarily on the rigid timetable the map laid out: an end to terrorism and dismantlement of the outposts (by May this year), establishment of a Palestinian state with temporary borders (by this December) and a permanent-status agreement (2004-2005).

If anyone still had any doubts that this timetable has become passe, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs William Burns took the trouble, during his last visit to the region, to make it clear that it is the performance benchmarks that will determine the transition from one stage to the next. The principle of mutuality, or "parallel implementation" (as opposed to "serial implementation"), which lay at the heart of the road map, has suffered the same fate as the timetable. While the Palestinian Authority is required - as a precondition - to immediately uproot the terrorist infrastructure, the U.S. is ignoring Israel's foot-dragging with regard to dismantling the infrastructure of the occupation, as required by the road map.

Because President Bush is reluctant to be dragged into a conflict with Israel over the outposts or the separation fences in the West Bank and Jerusalem, he is being careful to keep his distance from the road map. The chances of this changing depend on his status in the polls. The combination of the attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad, the death of American soldiers and grim economic data is slowly turning the November 2004 election into a battle over every vote. A close race increases the value of campaign donors - both Jewish and Christian - who believe in the greater Land of Israel.

There are those who say that it is wrong to attribute too much importance to domestic politics, since Bush knows that on Election Day, the right-wing Jewish-Christian coalition will not give their votes to the Democratic candidate. But even if Bush's political situation improves, there is no guarantee that he will hasten to pressure his friend "Ariel." If the September 11 attacks turned Bush into Sharon's partner in the war on terror, the American invasion of Iraq turned Bush into Sharon's partner in the entanglement of occupation. A superpower that rules over 23 million Arabs living thousands of miles from its shores must be extra-cautious in its treatment of a small country that rules over 3 million Arabs living right on its doorstep.

How can the U.S. demand that Israel change its rules of engagement with regard to opening fire at journalists when its own soldiers have light trigger fingers when confronted by photographers? Even the American excuses ("the soldiers thought the camera was an RPG") are beginning to sound like they were plagiarized from the IDF Spokesman.

Sharon can bet on the fact that if he wants to thumb his nose at Bush and expel Yasser Arafat, Bush will be forced to bite his lip. Bush surely knows that the man who compared him to Neville Chamberlain would not hesitate to ask whether the U.S. would be willing to give Saddam Hussein political refuge in some equivalent of the Muqata, from which he would be able to appoint ministers and, according to Israel, even dispatch suicide bombers.

The president will have to choose between a new quarrel with Sharon and his friends in Congress and responsibility for a worsening of the old conflict between Israel and the Arabs. It must be hoped that he will choose his responsibility toward the road map rather than abandoning us to our fate.