Analysis / How Bush remained vague and pleased both sides
One interpretation of Bush's speech on Friday sees it as a victory for Colin Powell and a turning point in the current administration's involvement in the conflict. Meanwhile in Jerusalem, the speech is being heralded as a triumph for Ariel Sharon.
The United States' diplomatic efforts in the Middle East have always been characterized by a "conservative ambiguity" aimed at pleasing all parties, bridging conflicting interests and furnishing the Americans with maximum freedom of action. President George W. Bush's statement on Friday, in which he expressed his "personal commitment" to the implementation of his "road map" for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, fits this model perfectly. Each side can read and interpret it in whatever way suits it best.
One interpretation of the speech sees it as a turning point in the current administration's involvement in the conflict. After months of foot dragging, the president presented a clear outline for the completion of the "road map," called on both sides to renew negotiations and stipulated the steps toward the establishment of a Palestinian state. The timing of the speech - on the eve of a war with Iraq - highlights the link between the two Middle East crises and declares the next U.S. goal in the region, once Saddam Hussein has been removed.
According to proponents of this interpretation of the speech, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been enjoying a "diplomatic time-out," without having to budge an inch, thanks to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, with whom the Americans are thoroughly fed up. However, the PA is now appointing a prime minister - at Arafat's expense - just as Sharon demanded, and the time-out is now at an end. The negotiations will be renewed, with greater American involvement, and Israel will be called on to make concessions too.
The Saturday edition of the New York Times reported howls of delight in the corridors of the State Department after Friday's speech, which represented a victory for the proactive line of Colin Powell, over his rivals in the Pentagon and White House, who are wary of any involvement between Sharon and the Palestinians.
But inside the Prime Minister's Office, there is a very different view of the speech, which in Jerusalem is seen as a triumph for Sharon. Firstly, they believe it will encourage the appointment of Abu Mazen as Palestinian prime minister, marginalizing Arafat even further. Secondly, Bush has removed the Europeans from the equation, making it clear that the United States is leading the peace process, and not the international Quartet, which also includes the UN, Russia and the EU. Thirdly, by not bowing to the European and Palestinian demand that he publish the current text of the "road map," the president make it quite clear that the wording is far from complete, and that the administration is open to comments from wither side. Finally, Bush reaffirmed that the binding basis for the renewed peace drive would be his June 2002 speech - the only one Sharon has accepted.
Bush agreed to renewing talks between Israel and the Palestinians on the formulation of the "road map," another delay before any real talks begin. He was particularly demanding of the Palestinian prime minister delegate, who he said must prove is a worthwhile partner for negotiations.
Thus far, Sharon has refrained from publicly criticizing the "road map," in order not to anger the Americans, preferring to respond with his customary "Yes, but." Instead, the criticism came last week from, Mortimer Zuckerman, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, in an unusually harsh article about the "road map." He called it "a road to perdition" and the worst U.S. plan for the Middle East since 1967.
Zuckerman, who enjoys a close relationship with Sharon and with other Israeli officials, claimed that the "road map" veers from the path laid out in Bush's speech, created by State Department officials and their Quartet partners. He called on the administration to return to the original speech, which was "as fair as it was explicit. It was a road map to a lasting peace anyone could understand."
In the White House, the message was well understood, and it was decided to coordinate with Israel ahead of Friday's statement. Sharon's aides were called to Washington, and Jewish leader were invited to placatory talks with Condoleezza Rice. So the administration managed once again to please everyone, and to defer the real decisions unitl after the war on Iraq.