The Bush administration looks set to make a major push to end hostilities between Palestinians and Israel with the expected release of what's known as the "road map" for Middle East peace. But as RFE/RL reports, pessimism about the new peace formula abounds.
Washington, 17 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The war in Iraq all but over, U.S. diplomacy looks set to make a new push for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
But by all appearances, Arab-Israeli peace will prove far more difficult to achieve than toppling Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from power.
Unlike the previous big U.S. attempt to keep the Middle East peace process alive -- which vainly occupied the final days in office of former U.S. President Bill Clinton -- Washington is now working as part of a "quartet" that also includes the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia.
The group has drawn up a new formula for peace called the "road map," which, after much delay, mostly from Washington, is expected to be published as soon as the Palestinians confirm their new cabinet. The road map lays out a series of reciprocal steps for both sides to take, culminating in full Palestinian statehood by 2005.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters on 15 April: "This is going to be a very difficult process, but I believe progress can be made if both sides enter this 'road map' process with an understanding of the needs of the other side."
Analysts have said the new plan could hail the beginning of a new era of Middle East peacemaking following the breakdown of the Oslo process in the fall of 2000.
"We could be at the eve of a new peace process, or rather, the resumption of the peace process that was suspended about two years ago. But a lot has to happen even before that process really gets started. We're not quite at the beginning of the road. We might just be able to see it from here," said Nathan Brown, a Middle East expert who teaches at George Washington University.
But there will likely be more than a few bumps in the road before the plan is actually published. On 13 April, for example, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat rejected a list of reformist ministers presented by Prime Minister-designate Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate who had sought control for himself over the powerful Interior Ministry.
Under the road map, the Interior Ministry is supposed to crack down on Palestinian militants, something Israel accuses Arafat of failing to do.
The appointment of Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, followed demands from both Israel and Washington that the Palestinian Authority finds new leadership capable of tackling Palestinian militants and graft. U.S. officials are hopeful that Abbas can eventually help marginalize Arafat and revitalize Palestinian leadership.
But can he work effectively under Arafat?
Ariel Cohen, an analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, expressed a position similar to that of the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
"I tend to believe from reading many statements by Yasser Arafat and definitely the leadership of the more radical terrorist organizations, such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and others, that they still believe that the armed struggle is the way to go and the destruction of Israel remains their ultimate goal. Until such time, I don't believe the peace process, even if it's imposed by the 'quartet,' is going to be successful," Cohen said.
Nevertheless, Powell said he is hopeful that the new Palestinian cabinet will be approved in the next week or so, at which point Israelis and Palestinians would have a chance to discuss the plan between themselves.
With Arafat and Abbas tussling over the new cabinet's makeup, senior Israeli officials visited Washington this week to express reservations about the road map. Just what they conveyed to Washington is not yet publicly known.
Reports indicate that Israel is unhappy with the road map's reciprocal steps to peace, arguing instead that Palestinians must first cease all violence and that new Palestinian institutions must be given more time than the plan calls for to prove they are trustworthy.
Another reported Israeli criticism is that the plan fails to press Arab states to contribute more than they already have to the peace process.
Despite these reservations, Powell said on 15 April that the road map will be published as it is, without any changes.
Brown of George Washington University said pessimism usually pays when prognosticating about the Middle East. "There are an awful lot of criticisms that could be made of the road map, both on the Palestinian side and from the Israeli side. The Palestinians are in the weaker position and anxious to get international involvement, so they're less vocal with their criticisms. But it's neither really a Palestinian nor an Israeli document. At this point, it's the only really promising idea that anybody has going, so it's as likely to work as anything else," Brown said.
The road map calls for a halt to Jewish settlement activity in Palestinian areas. On 13 April, Sharon said he may be prepared to exchange some Jewish settlements for peace. The remarks were brushed off by some analysts as political posturing to benefit Washington.
Brown said the Bush administration, fresh from a controversial war in Iraq, is keen on boosting its international standing by making a new bid for Middle East peace. Washington is also under pressure from a key ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is also eager to see progress toward peace, Brown said.
The Bush administration has so far resisted Middle East peacemaking, focusing instead on urging reforms among Palestinians -- such as calling for Arafat to step aside -- and pursuing regime change in Iraq.
Indeed, Bush and his key advisers have said they see the Iraq war as part of a larger effort to achieve peace between Arabs and Israelis. According to this thinking, removing regimes in the region that repress their own people and fuel terror will eventually create conditions for Arab acceptance of Israel.
Maureen Steinbruner, president of the Center for National Policy, a Washington think tank formerly run by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, said that the Bush administration believes Iraq is a watershed event in Middle East history.
"I think they believe that the actions that have been taken and the momentum generated creates the potential possibility for further activity that could indeed be path-breaking and change the equation. I'm not saying I agree with that. I'm saying that that is their conviction," Steinbruner said.
Many analysts read Washington's recent war of words with Syria in precisely that light. Syria, seen as a key supporter of Palestinian militant groups and adamantly opposed to Israel's existence, has come under heavy U.S. pressure over the past two weeks. Washington has criticized Syria for everything from harboring Iraqi officials to supporting terror and developing weapons of mass destruction.
Reflecting the thinking of the Bush administration, the Heritage Foundation's Cohen said: "I think putting pressure on Syria makes total sense. Why? As long as there is an adjacent Arab country that is implacably opposed to peace, such as Syria, the reason for the Palestinians or the capability of the Palestinians to settle the issue with Israel will be severely diminished."
What if, as many predict, the latest push for peace between Israel and the Palestinians comes to naught?
Again echoing some voices in the Bush administration, Cohen said that "the preferable mode of operation" would be to tackle the sources of terrorism and resistance to peace in the broader Middle East.
It may not necessarily come through war, but the best way to do that, he said, would be more "regime change" -- this time, in Syria and Iran.