A series of Palestinian suicide bombings is threatening to derail the new American-backed plan to forge peace between Israel and the Palestinians. But as RFE/RL reports, the Bush administration is putting a brave face on its rattled peace efforts.
Washington, 20 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush is vowing to press ahead with a new Mideast peace plan despite a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings that has threatened to destroy the so-called "road map" initiative.
Just two weeks after Washington and its partners the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia released the road map -- which envisions a series of reciprocal steps by both sides leading to a Palestinian state by 2005 -- the plan was all but rejected by Israel.
Following five suicide bombings in three days, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Sunday (18 May) canceled a trip to Washington to meet with Bush. Speaking in Jerusalem, Sharon's spokesman, Raanan Gissin, said: "Unfortunately, there is no road map to peace, but rather a trail of blood and terror that continues since the Sunday massacre."
Bush is putting a brave face on the setbacks. Speaking to reporters at the White House yesterday, the president said he still has confidence in the road map. "We're still on the road to peace," he said. "It's just going to be a bumpy road, and I'm not going to get off the road until we achieve the vision." Bush also called on European leaders to play a bigger role in the peace process.
His call came after the European Union urged Israelis and Palestinians yesterday not to let "rejectionist forces" wreck the road map. EU foreign ministers also asked Israel to halt settlements on occupied Palestinian land.
Bush said nothing about Israeli settlements yesterday. In the past, he has said Jewish settlement activity should be addressed only after "progress" toward peace has been achieved.
But without single-minded American pressure on both the Israelis and the Palestinians, many analysts are skeptical that the road map can survive in the face of Israeli objections and intense opposition from Palestinian militant groups.
U.S. officials had pinned their hopes for reviving the peace process on new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate appointed three weeks ago after intense U.S. and Israeli pressure on the Palestinians to find an alternative to Yasser Arafat.
Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, met with Sharon on 17 May for the highest-level Israeli-Palestinian talks in more than two years. Although the meeting was overshadowed by the bombings, Sharon said afterward that he will continue to meet with the new Palestinian prime minister.
Throughout the 31-month Palestinian uprising, Israel has accused Arafat, the Palestinians' long-time leader, of compromising with militant groups, such as Hamas and Hizballah.
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz again blamed Arafat yesterday for an attack on a Jerusalem bus that killed seven civilians. Mofaz said Israel is convinced that Arafat is preventing the peace initiative from taking off, adding that Tel Aviv would consider expelling Arafat if he stymies Abbas's professed intentions to rein in militants and implement reforms for peace.
The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an offshoot of Arafat's Fatah faction, and the militant Islamic Jihad group claimed joint responsibility for an attack yesterday on an Israeli shopping mall that killed three people.
Arafat, who has tussled with Abbas in a struggle for power, denied any involvement in the attacks or that he incites militants. "I condemn completely these terrorist activities, [but] you have to remember that [Israeli government officials] are insisting only to give big propaganda against me," he said. Arafat also criticized Israel for refusing to embrace the road map even before the weekend's bombings.
Israel has insisted that Abbas's new government demonstrate it can neutralize militants before taking any steps itself, such as halting activity at Jewish settlements in Arab areas. That position was echoed by a statement from Sharon's office on 18 May, which said that only after "terror has been eradicated" will "progress through political channels" be possible.
Israeli spokesman Gissin added: "I think this is also an indication that the Palestinian Authority and the newly appointed prime minister, Abu Mazen, have a lot of reckoning to do and to take very tough decisions. Either they take the stand, either they stop terrorists attacks, either they dismantle the terrorist infrastructure, or we will have to do it. And you can rest assured, we will bring them to justice."
But with Palestinians divided and their security services all but decimated by Israeli forces, some say that reining in militants may be an impossible task for Abbas.
There have been six suicide attacks since Abbas took office, compared with five in the previous six months, suggesting a concerted campaign by militants to undermine his agenda.
A spokesman for Hamas, Mahmoud al-Zahar, underscored the radical group's resolve to resist making any compromises with Israel. In an interview with Reuters yesterday in the Gaza Strip, al-Zahar said Israel must withdraw its forces from the occupied territories or else continue to face attacks. "I think this [attack] is a good indicator about how the resistance movement is able to achieve their goal by all means at any time, everywhere," he said.
Judith Kipper is a Middle East analyst with Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank. Kipper told RFE/RL: "[The Palestinians] can't crack down by themselves, and it's not something that can be done overnight for the simple reason that their security forces have been devastated and are split apart because of the intifadah and the Israeli actions in the territories. And there has to be cooperation with the Israelis, and the Americans have to be between them. They cannot do this by themselves."
But Kipper added that despite Bush's upbeat rhetoric and a visit to the region last week by Secretary of State Colin Powell, Washington has not shown the necessary commitment to the road map. The "Financial Times" yesterday quoted former chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat as saying that after meeting Powell last week, he realized that Washington has no intentions of pressing Sharon to accept the road map.
Kipper said there needs to be a team of senior U.S. envoys stationed in the region working with both sides on political and security issues.