Why is the road map stirring up such controversy in May 2003, while the Mitchell committee report of May 2001 hardly made waves at all? After all, both call on Israel to relocate outposts and freeze construction in existing settlements, including what's known as natural growth. Both plans lead to the establishment of a Palesitinian state. Moreover, the Mitchell recommendations demand that Israel guarantee the contiguity of Palestinian territory.
The answer should not be sought in the fine print. It screams out of the main headlines in the papers regarding the disagreements in the government about the road map. The Mitchell plan was easy to ward off because the U.S. spared Sharon the political cost of getting it approved. Then tourism minister Rehavam Zeevi was asked by a television interviewer how he could stay in a government that had endorsed a comprehensive peace plan which included a settlement freeze. "Show me a government resolution that endorses the Mitchell plan," Zeevi replied. "We'll be out of the government the moment this plan is approved."
Since Washington agreed to waive the need for an official endorsement of the plan, Sharon was able to keep both the architects and the destroyers of the Oslo Accords around the same cabinet table, promising each what they wanted to hear.
The big difference between the road map and its precursors is that this time President George W. Bush did not make do with loyalty statements from the prime minister. This time, the U.S. insists that Israel must sign its initials next to the provisions that talk about Palestinian statehood and a settlement freeze. Bush demanded that Sharon look right-winger Effi Eitam and left-winger Joseph Paritzky straight in the eye, and count the vote.
From now on, Sharon will have a hard time telling his pals in the National Union party that his conciliatory interview with Haaretz in April should not be taken too seriously, and convincing his partners from Shinui that the militant interview he gave to The Jerusalem Post earlier this month should not be taken at face value.
A vote on the Quartet's road map was not part of Sharon's planned agenda. In his speech at the Herzliya Conference in December 2002, Sharon promised only to ask the government to support the vision laid down by President Bush in his speech last June 24. No mention was made of any settlement freeze, nor was any schedule specified for the formation of a provisional Palestinian state (within this year) and of concluding negotiations about permanent borders during Sharon's term in government (some time in 2005).
Up until a few weeks ago, Sharon didn't even consider the possibility that President Bush would force him to put the road map to the government for a vote, not even in his worst nightmare. Experts promised him it would be months before the Americans leave Iraq and that before Bush would give our conflict the time of day, he would first focus on Hezbollah and Syria.
Sharon's aides said that he could count on our common friends among American evangelists and at the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to remind the president what several thousand votes in Florida can do to his career.
Indeed, on election day President Bush may pay a high political price for the bullets he made Sharon sweat at yesterday's cabinet meeting. A regional summit promises the president no public dividend either. We have already seen how a single terrorist can turn any government resolution into a worthless piece of paper and any summit meeting into a sad farce. Reservations, comments and addenda can also send the road map to its final resting place, together with the Mitchell plan.
President Bush's hard work on the implementation of the road map is just starting. Will he enforce an external monitoring and enforcement mechanism that will protect the road map from being harmed by extremists from either side? Will he dispatch an effective monitoring force to the region, to stop the cycle of terror and assassinations? Will he insist that Sharon dismantle settlements regardless of terror, just as he is demanding that Abu Mazen fight terror regardless of the settlements?
President Bush, for the first time, has decided to get his feet wet. It's too late now to stay dry, so he may as well jump in and go all the way.
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