The "road map" for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict died last Thursday. The funeral took place in the office of Condoleezza Rice in the White House, during a pleasant conversation among the U.S. national security adviser and her aides and on the Israeli side, the prime minister's bureau chief Dov Weisglass, Ambassador to the United States Danny Ayalon and the prime minister's foreign policy adviser, Shalom Tourgeman. It had a short life, did the road map, which was cut short before it was realized. In its place the "Bush vision" has returned to diplomatic discourse, as the political goal of Israel and the United States.
The public may have difficulty distinguishing between the concepts, but for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon the death of the road map is a great political victory. The plan for an imposed international agreement has already been removed from the path, the political process has been frozen until the departure of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, and Israel is enjoying freedom of action.
Sharon spoke of several months of waiting, during which he will try to implement the road map, before he abandons it and goes over to unilateral disengagement. But the waiting period has been drastically shortened, and Washington is now willing to hear about disengagement steps, on condition that they suit the Bush vision.
In his June 2002 speech, President George W. Bush called for a change in leadership as a condition for Palestinian independence. Israel rejoiced at the public letter of dismissal to Yasser Arafat.
It was less enthusiastic about the road map, which was designed to translate the vision into a plan of action acceptable to the United States and Europe. The map called for calming things down, for establishing a Palestinian state within temporary borders until the end of 2003, and for a final agreement by 2005. Its demands of the sides were "balanced" and detailed, in other words, less convenient for Israel than Bush's overall vision, which focused on demands made on the Palestinians.
Sharon used delaying and evasive tactics, and presented firm reservations about the map, but was careful to avoid conflict with the U.S. administration. After the Iraq war, he gave in to the American pressure and succeeded in getting the road map approved, conditionally, in the government. From that moment Sharon embraced it verbally, even if he was miserly about implementing it. Its removal from the agenda and the return of the "Bush vision" logo are very convenient for Israel. They move political contacts in the region back by more than a year.
Sharon's tactics paid off. The Americans blame the Palestinians for the failure. The U.S. administration is partner to the Israeli assessment that there is nobody to talk to on the Palestinian side. A senior White House official last week described Arafat as Robert Mugabe, the ruler of Zimbabwe, who destroyed his country and gave no hope to his people, as opposed to his South African neighbor Nelson Mandela.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Queria (Abu Ala) looks to the Americans like a washout who is doing nothing to fight the corruption that has spread in the PA, as opposed to the Bush vision of proper administration. In such a situation, they don't expect Israel to conduct negotiations with the PA.
The administration is making sure that Israel doesn't block the future establishment of a "viable Palestinian state" that enjoys "territorial contiguity." It is willing to understand the separation fence and even to accept high-rise construction in the settlements, without expansion on the ground. But the United States will not agree to Sharon's "eastern fence," which will close the Palestinians into a large cage. He will be forced to give it up, if he wants his disengagement plan to conform to Bush's vision of Palestinian independence.
The road map is dead, Sharon has received the freedom of action that he wanted. But the real problem lies in another place. The disintegration of the PA, which has turned into a useless mechanism for distributing salaries, presents a challenge to Israel. Some are happy about the decline of Arafat and the Tunis and Oslo institutions, and some fear the return of full occupation to the territories, with its high economic and moral cost. But nobody knows who will govern on the Palestinian side, and it is doubtful whether the solution lies in Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz's appointing an ombudsman to deal with Palestinian complaints, or in the partial unilateral disengagement planned by Sharon.
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