Epitaph for a Road Map

The new Hamas government and Olmert's unilateral intentions don't inspire hope for the 'road map for peace', which was ill-conceived to begin with.

Yonatan Touval
Yonatan Touval
Yonatan Touval
Yonatan Touval

As the international community, led by the Quartet of the UN, EU, U.S. and Russia, ponders how best to respond to the formation of a Hamas-led government in the Palestinian Authority, it may do well to begin by writing an epitaph for the "road map for peace."

This is not, or not only, because the new Palestinian government leaves little hope for a negotiated process that could culminate in a two-state solution. Nor is it because Israel's acting prime minister and front-runner in next week's general elections has already made clear his intention to undertake further territorial withdrawals in order to set, unilaterally, the country's permanent borders.

In fact, it is not at all because almost three years after it was first put on the table, the road map is dead, but because as Israel made sure, it never came to be. Tailor made to bypass Yasser Arafat, satisfy Ariel Sharon, and (no less challenging) bridge the differences between the Quartet members themselves, the plan was deeply flawed and probably destined to fail. Yet to insist that the newly-formed Palestinian government adopt the road map is not only to raise a ghost, but to continue turning a blind eye to Israel's role in aborting this ill-conceived plan from the outset.

It is worth recalling that the very vote by which the Israeli cabinet ostensibly approved the road map in May 2003 also subjected the plan to 14 reservations that made sure the process would never start. By insisting, to name only one reservation, that absolute quiet was a precondition for the process to begin, Sharon's government bestowed the veto power on the last terrorist; and by asserting, to name another reservation, that there was to be no "involvement" with final-status issues, including settlements and Jerusalem, Sharon's government eliminated any incentive for any pragmatist to try to begin the process in the first place.

Israel's reservations were not for domestic political consumption alone. Standing next to President Bush and then-prime minister Mahmoud Abbas at the Aqaba summit of June 2003, which was to stage the official launching of the road map, Sharon managed to invoke the term "road map" only one single time, only to qualify it by the phrase "as adopted by the Israeli government." This generous-ringing "adopted," which was bad faith for "adapted" and shorthand for Israel's 14 reservations, soon became a fixture of Israel's road map repertoire.

And it was not only in words that the Israeli government dismissed the road map; it was in actions too. For all the praise it got, the Gaza disengagement plan was designed, perhaps more than anything else, to circumvent the road map. How do we know? Sharon himself said so. Unveiling his plan in December 2003, a mere seven months after his government's presumed acceptance of the road map, Sharon declared that efforts to start the process had come to naught and that Israel was determined to do something else.

The exact logic for why Israel would sidestep the road map achieved its most perfect form five months later. In his famous letter to President Bush in April 2004, Sharon reiterated Israel's qualified acceptance of the road map ("as adopted by our government"), stated that steps to implement the road map must be done in sequence, not in parallel, and claimed that since the Palestinians had not done their share, Israel would proceed with a plan of its own. In an act more cynical than ironic, Sharon declared that his plan did not preclude a future return to the road map, nor was the plan inconsistent with it. Quite the contrary, Sharon remarkably remarked, the road map was to remain the only framework for any future progress.

Having first qualified the road map and then declared he would sidestep it, Sharon went on simply to dismiss it. In an interview to the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth in September 2004, Sharon suggested that there might not be any troop pullbacks after Israel carried out its disengagement plan, adding that this could signal "decades of stalemate."

A month later, in what was perhaps the most terrific insight into Sharon's mind, Sharon's closest aide interviewed to Haaretz and described the disengagement plan as a "bottle of formaldehyde" within which Sharon had placed Bush's vision of a two-state solution. Elaborating on the meaning of this curious metaphor, Dov Weissglas explained: "When you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and you prevent a discussion about the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem."

As to the road map, Weissglas went on to say that it was "removed from our agenda indefinitely."

And lest the irony escaped Washington, Weissglas drove it all the way to the White House: "And all this with authority and permission, all with a presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress."

Anyone who believed that Israel's unilateral pullout would lead the parties back to the road map, however, could only be in for a disappointment. Although the disengagement plan was a resounding success for Sharon, the pullout, it turned out, had only further distanced Israel from the road map, since it placed Israel, as Sharon was soon to announce, in "a pre-road map stage." The prospect of movement "post" disengagement could only be, to put it mildly, preposterous.

Now that Sharon is gone and Arafat is long dead, the road map remains a ghostly specter. But it need not haunt us still. If the international community wants to map the road ahead constructively, it should start by turning the page on a plan the rumors of whose death were never premature and whose end had best be finally and officially declared.

The writer is a researcher at the Economic Cooperation Foundation (ECF).

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