It seems there has never been a peace plan that has won so many headlines, with so few expectations, as the road map.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, one of the original bridesmaids of the road map, "forgot" to mention in Jerusalem that President Bush is awaiting an official decision by the government of Israel about the plan. A secret poll would show signs of skepticism among the most sworn optimists of the Quartet involved in drafting the road map. It is highly doubtful that any of the framers of the term "an independent Palestinian state in provisional borders," actually believes for a minute that he will be invited to a ceremony launching that state this year. In any case, the expectation that the sides will reach a permanent agreement that "puts an end to the conflict" by 2005 appears more like a utopian vision than a real article in a serious political plan.
Let's assume that, despite all the difficulties, the provisionally bordered state is established this year or, keeping in mind "injury time," like in football, it is established sometime next year. What will Israel get in exchange for recognizing the new state, other than an end to the violence for two to three years, and that only in the best case?
A few days after the negotiations for a final agreement begin, it will turn out the map cannot encompass the huge gaps that exist between the sides on each of the disputed issues. Presumably, the new country will not be satisfied with the perpetuation of its temporary borders. It won't give up on East Jerusalem and sovereignty over Haram al-Sharif (the Temple Mount). Nor will it abandon the refugee masses.
When it turns out the Palestinian terror was only an excuse for the Israeli government to smash the Oslo accords, the renewal of violence will only be a matter of hours. And then Israel will be dealing with an independent Arab country. The Iraqi case shows it's not so easy to invade a country that belongs to the United Nations. Egypt and Jordan will find it difficult to stand on the sidelines if an Arab League member state's main cities are occupied while the country is trying to free Islamic holy places from the hands of the Jews. The credibility of the United States, whose president signed the road map, will be tested.
Ariel Sharon's demand that the Palestinians start the negotiations by giving up the right of return is a hint that the prime minister is aware of the risks involved in going into the tunnel with the clear knowledge it leads to a chasm. If it's to be expected that, when the time comes to discuss the final arrangements, the Palestinians insist on the right of return - the battle cry is already written on the wall.
What interest will Israel have to improve the positions of an enemy ahead of a conflict that is fully expected? If the Palestinians are determined to demand the return of the 1948 refugees to their homes, we should know so, before the PA becomes a sovereign state.
One doesn't need to be a wily premier like Sharon to know that no Palestinian leader will give up the ethos of the right of return in exchange for the poor chance of winning a state on 40 percent of the territories. One can only imagine what Sharon would do if Abu Mazen were, indeed, to announce that he was ready to immediately discuss giving up the return of the Jaffa Palestinians - on condition that Israel now give up the right of Jews to return to Hebron. What would happen if the Palestinian cabinet announced it would make do with Israel handing over the settlements for resettling the Palestinian refugees? It would be interesting to see if Sharon would then dismantle or evacuate a single one of the inhabited outposts on Palestinian land on Mt. Hebron, or if he would regrettably concede "natural growth."
Sharon was right to bring up the issue now and take the refugee problem out of the staged phases of the permanent agreement. He cleared the table of more unnecessary and dangerous temporary agreements. But a peace plan is not a "your requests show" for one side of a conflict, even if it is temporarily the stronger side.
Even the Bush vision, so beloved by Sharon, mentions in one sentence the solution to the refugee problem, the need for an "end to the occupation that began in 1967," and an "agreed" solution to the status of Jerusalem.
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