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1. To each his own timetable

Yesterday, some people in the Middle East were waiting with bated breath to hear what Tony Blair would say after his meeting with George W. Bush. Would his remarks indicate that he'd been able to persuade the American president to place the road map on the table now? Or, would they indicate that he'd accepted Bush's position that, for the present, lip service must be paid to the U.S. commitment to this process, but that it will not move ahead until the objectives of the war in Iraq are achieved and Saddam Hussein's regime is toppled?

Among those who were anxiously awaiting the results of Blair's talks with Bush were Abu Mazen and the representatives of the Quartet, who played a key role in the former's selection as prime minister of the Palestinian Authority. Ariel Sharon, on the other hand, was complacent about the meeting between the American president and the British prime minister: He's confident that the timetable for implementation of the road map will be set by Bush, in accordance with his judgment alone, and that therefore there is plenty of time before it will have to be dealt with.

All of the parties concerned have their own preferred timetable regarding the road map: Abu Mazen would apparently like to postpone the start of the political process outlined in the American document until after the results of the assault in Iraq are clear. Officially, the new PA prime minister explains that he still has to form a government and organize his administration. But he is evidently seeking to avoid for now any open contacts with President Bush so as not to be perceived in the Arab world as a collaborator with the administration that has just invaded a large Arab nation and is marching on its capital.

Information obtained by Jerusalem says that Abu Mazen is signaling his refusal, at this stage, to receive an invitation to visit Washington (a step advocated by the Quartet representatives when they worked to have him picked for the position, in order to elevate his status in Palestinian eyes and to help endow him with the image of a distinguished international leader). He even asked not to receive any official congratulations from the United States upon his appointment (which was made via a messenger who delivered a letter of authorization from Arafat - a procedure that Israeli officials construed as a deliberate effort to diminish its value). It seems that Abu Mazen would like to postpone the commencement of the road map for several weeks.

Ariel Sharon, however, would like to postpone it for as long as possible. As he sees it, when the time comes for the road map to begin, the American administration will have to give Israel sufficient opportunity to critique it and insert revisions. The prime minister feels that the comments Israel submitted on the road map are supposed to serve as a basis for discussion with the American administration that will produce an agreed-upon version of the document; only then will it be time to start the implementation.

At the cabinet meeting this week, Sharon announced that there would not be any discussion with the United States about the road map before the end of the war in Iraq and before the administration's "drafts" are presented to Israel for review and comment. Sharon emphasized that what he'd told the government before about this matter still holds true - in other words, that he is adhering to his promise to bring the road map to the government for discussion and approval once the clarifications of the "drafts" are concluded with the U.S., and that the government will thus be given the chance to express its opinion on the road map before it is put into action.

Since the coalition agreement guaranteed the NRP and the National Union the right to object to clauses in the road map, and since some Likud ministers have warned about its damaging potential, it's not hard to see why Sharon would like to put off addressing this issue for as long as possible.

If anyone appeared eager to push the road map, it was the representatives of the Quartet. This group - Terje Larsen, Miguel Moratinos and Andrei Vdovin - which worked adeptly and diligently over the past months to bring about the reform in the PA leadership and to see Abu Mazen appointed as prime minister, is still propelled by a sense of urgency. It fears that any delay will contribute to a watering-down of the American outline. It is aware of the considerations guiding Sharon and Abu Mazen, but thinks that these should be disregarded. In its view, Bush and Blair ought to have already declared the start of the road map's practical implementation.

2. What the implementation mechanism will look like

Before the war in Iraq began, there was wide agreement that it could give a jump-start to a political process that would lead to an alleviation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yesterday, this premise seemed to have lost some of its persuasiveness. In view of the setbacks that the U.S. and Britain have encountered in Iraq, some of the foreign diplomats posted in Israel were wondering whether the war was becoming a burden rather than an asset in the effort to resolve the conflict here. While to Israeli perceptions, the obstacles encountered by the American and British forces in Iraq appeared reasonable and expected, some foreign diplomats were wondering if they presaged a long-term American (and British) entanglement in a distant and hostile country - a situation that could push every other matter, including the road map, off the American president's agenda.

The Quartet representatives are also probably quite concerned about what has been going on in the PA territories: They see the proposed route of the separation fence that the defense establishment is building and understand that it has political significance, and that its purpose is to annex to Israel broad swaths of the West Bank. They are aware of the influence exerted by the Yesha Council on government decisions regarding the Palestinian matter. They are conscious of the destructive results of the Israeli policy that sought to induce the collapse of the PA. They see the terrible distress of the civilian population in the territories. They worriedly observe the harsh nature of the Israeli military responses in the Gaza Strip and ask themselves if these actions indicate an Israeli intention to reoccupy the entire area.

They are aware of Abu Mazen's ambitions of succeeding in his post and of improving the miserable condition of his people. They worked hard to create the infrastructure for the implementation of the road map and they want to ensure that their efforts will not have been in vain.

There are disagreements among Israel and the Quartet and the American administration (at least part of it) as to the meaning of the formulations contained in the road map. While Israel asserts that it has the right to respond to the document and to discuss it with Washington until an agreed-upon formula is reached, the State Department (and other administration officials) and the Quartet say that the wording signifies that the parties are entitled to "contribute" to the clarification of the document, but not to "comment" on it - in other words, the time for polishing the wording has ended and the time for implementation has arrived, although as this proceeds, the parties will be given an opportunity to interpret it as they understand it.

The Quartet, with the State Department's blessing, has already designed the implementation mechanism for the road map.

According to the plan, a supreme coordinating committee will be established, and will be headed by a representative of the American administration. He will be joined by the Quartet representatives (from the U.S., Russia, the UN and the European Union). Implementation of the road map will be divided into four realms of action: reform in the PA, security issues, the humanitarian dimension and the political dimension (such as the situation in the settlements, tracking of incitement activities on both sides, the closing of Palestinian institutions in Jerusalem). There will be four team leaders whose job it will be to implement the road map in each of the four areas. Representatives of Israel and the Palestinian Authority will be included in each of the four teams.

The status of the road map and the implementation mechanism will be determined by the evolution of the war in Iraq. It will also decide the dispute between Israel and the State Department as to whether the sections of the road map are to be implemented simultaneously or one after the other. Israel argues that the outline presented by President Bush in his speech in June of last year (which was translated into the road map) explicitly indicated that before it is required to do its part to alleviate the conflict (for example, by withdrawing to where it was deployed before September 2000, or by instituting a settlement freeze), the Palestinians must bring about a cessation of terror activity. The PA, the State Department and the Quartet say that, according to the road map, the conciliatory steps must be taken in tandem - in other words, the Palestinians do not have to halt the terror as a prerequisite to implementation of the process. Bush, who so far does not appear to accept the State Department's version, and whose administration has used the word "terror" to describe the attacks by Iraqi army units on the rear of American convoys moving towards Baghdad, will find it difficult to reject the Israeli demand for a cessation of Palestinian violence before any diplomatic steps are taken.

Silvan Shalom, Israel's new foreign minister, who set off for Washington two days ago for meetings with Vice President Richard Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell, will have a good chance to assess the administration's mood regarding the progress of the war in Iraq. Before he left, he sounded untroubled about what he might hear concerning the American position on the road map. "Let's see Abu Mazen stop the incitement against Israel in the schools and in the radio and television broadcasts," Shalom said, implying that he believes the Palestinian prime minister has the ability to take immediate action on this to start allaying the conflict (even before the terror is brought to a halt - a more complicated process that is not up to him alone).