Analysis / Maximum interest, minimum action
Just 11 days have passed since publication of the road map, the international plan for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and already it appears to have disappeared from the diplomatic discourse.
Just 11 days have passed since publication of the road map, the international plan for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and already it appears to have disappeared from the diplomatic discourse. The U.S. administration has decided to put the road map to one side and focus now on reciprocal steps on the part of the Israelis and Palestinians that will lead to a renewal of the political process.
U.S. President George W. Bush made no mention at all of the road map in his speech Friday on the Middle East in which he promised that the administration would work tirelessly to realize the two-state vision - Israel and Palestine living alongside each other in peace.
Secretary of State Colin Powell has come to the region to show that the administration is involved, and to publicly embrace Abu Mazen. Bush has spoken of "concrete steps" on the part of Israel and the Palestinians that will lead to a renewal of the political process. Powell wants to push Abu Mazen into fighting terror and get reciprocal gestures from Ariel Sharon.
The administration of Bush Jr. has adopted a different approach to the one taken by his father's administration. When the peace process began in 1991, after the Gulf War, Bush Sr. and his aides set out with a big bang - the spectacular international conference in Madrid. Now, in the wake of their victory in Iraq, the Americans are speaking of reviving the peace process, but in the opposite direction - from the bottom up.
Instead of ceremonies and declarations from leaders, they would like to see Shaul Mofaz reaching agreements with Mohammed Dahlan that will gradually lead to a sense of calm on the ground; and in this way, the process will move forward step by step.
Senior Israeli officials believe that Bush will not risk his political prestige with a move whose chances for success are doubtful. "True, the president is determined and wants to move forward, but he won't bang his head against the wall," one senior official said. "If he feels that the chances of success are 80-20, and not 50-50, he will dip his hands into the Middle East stew pot."
For this reason, the administration wants to demonstrate involvement, but is leaving the responsibility to the two sides. The task that has been entrusted to Powell is somewhat of a thankless one - to exhibit maximum interest and minimum action.
Last week, the secretary of state returned from Damascus with huge headlines about the imminent shutting down of the Palestinian terror offices in the Syrian capital and the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon. Yesterday it emerged that behind the declarations lie very little content - if any at all.
Syrian President Bashar Assad told The Washington Post that he hadn't promised Powell anything, and that any progress in fulfilling the Americans' demands was contingent on the handing back of the Golan Heights to Syria. The Syrian positions remain as rigid as ever. Powell's visit was viewed in Damascus as a signal that the United States has no plans to attack Syria or undermine Assad's regime, and, as in the past, will suffice with merely reading the demands out from the paper on which they are written.
The guest is being greeted with an attitude from the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem. "He isn't Henry Kissinger, who settled down for a lengthy stay in the region," a senior official said. "He'll spend an hour-and-a-half with Sharon, and an hour with Abu Mazen; he'll hear what they have to say, express his opinion and move on."
Israel doesn't expect the United States to press for real concessions as long as the Palestinian terror continues, and so far the new government in the Palestinian Authority is not taking action against it. If there is a war against terror, there will be progress in the political process; and if there isn't, all the road maps in the world will be to no avail.
Powell has come to Jerusalem at an inconvenient time. He has been preceded by White House emissaries Steve Hadley and Eliot Abrams, who spent an entire day with Sharon and his people; and next week, Sharon will visit President Bush and try to reach an understanding with him on the next steps in the process. Sources in Sharon's bureau say that we shouldn't expect announcements or practical conclusions from the visit.
Bush is planning a warm welcome for the prime minister that will probably include a White House dinner. Already when announcing the visit, Bush said he was "greatly looking forward to" meeting with Sharon, with whom he last sat down for talks some seven months ago.
And what will happen with the road map? It will remain in the background as a signal to the sides - "a political horizon" that will instill hope in the Palestinians, and a possible whip to apply pressure in the event of mutual breaches or foot-dragging.
Abu Mazen will ask Powell to pressure Israel into adopting the road map as is; but Sharon is standing firm on his demand to make changes to it, or at least come to an understanding with the Americans on issues of principle on which Israel has a different view to that expressed in the plan.
Sharon will make it clear to the secretary of state that if Israel's positions are accepted, it will be easier for him to receive the cabinet's approval for the road map. To demonstrate his political difficulties, Sharon will introduce his American guest to senior ministers and the heads of the coalition factions. Hearing from Effi Eitam and Avigdor Lieberman will convince Powell that Sharon is the moderate member of the gang.