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Middle East: What Killed The Road Map -- And Whither Mideast Peace Now?

Just last spring, there was a new, cautious optimism in the Middle East after the fall of Iraq's Saddam Hussein and the release of a U.S.-backed plan to forge peace between Israel and Palestinians. But in recent days, the so-called "road map" for peace was blown off course as Palestinian-Israeli violence returned with a vengeance. What happened? RFE/RL ponders the brief life of a doomed plan.

Washington, 12 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- It wasn't supposed to end like this.

For months during the buildup to the Iraq war, supporters of toppling Saddam Hussein predicted his ouster would open up a window of opportunity to bring peace to the Middle East, much as victory in the 1991 Gulf War helped lead to the Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestinians.

And last May, that vision, also articulated by President George W. Bush himself, appeared to be on track. With Hussein defeated, Bush appeared intent on exploiting of the removal of his strategic threat to Israel to push for a peace culminating in an independent Palestinian state by 2005.

That, after all, was the goal of the "road map," the peace plan of reciprocal steps released in early May and drawn up by the quartet of Washington, the European Union, United Nations, and Russia.

But just four months on, the road map is all but dead, according to many experts, and the Bush administration is unlikely to take significant measures to revive it. Murhaf Jouejati is a Syrian-born scholar with the Middle East Institute and George Washington University in the U.S. capital. "If it's not dead, it is in a very, very serious coma," Jouejati told RFE/RL. "Everything does indicate that it is dead, except for the fact that the Bush administration keeps on trying to revive it, to resuscitate it. But in the present conditions, it really looks like it has a terminal illness and that it is unconscious totally."

Bush and other U.S. officials say the road map remains on the table. But assuming it fails to regain consciousness, what killed the peace plan? At first glance, a Palestinian suicide bomber did.

On 19 August, in the heat of an Israeli summer afternoon, an explosion rocked the heart of Jerusalem. It not only killed 22 people, but was the first major Palestinian attack since militant groups announced a cease-fire seven weeks previously.

The attack, for which Hamas claimed responsibility, was in response to the killing of a Hamas militant by Israeli forces several days earlier. The suicide bombing was predictably followed by a series of Israeli reprisals -- airborne, targeted assassinations aimed at leaders of Hamas and other militant groups.

A few days later, on 6 September, Washington's chief hope for Palestinian reform threw in the towel. Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, appointed last May by Arafat under pressure from Washington and Israel, resigned. He blamed Arafat and Israel for failing to give peace a chance.

Analysts interviewed by RFE/RL blame those parties as well. But they also point the finger at the Bush administration. Henry Siegman is director of the Middle East Project at the Council on Foreign Relations, a prestigious think tank in New York. Siegman has no doubts the road map is dead. Asked what killed it, he said the Bush administration failed to pressure Israel to cut back Jewish settlement activity in Palestinian areas -- a requirement of the road map -- or improve the lives of Palestinians restricted by checkpoints and other security measures they see as humiliating.

"The most important failure was the [Bush] administration's unwillingness to deal with the issue of continued settlement activity, which not only continued but intensified. And also, it did not insist that there be certain changes on the ground in order to enable Palestinians to breathe again so that Palestinians would see that a man who was not terribly popular with them to begin with, namely Mahmoud Abbas, actually was able to deliver," Siegman said.

As it was, Abbas was not seen as able to deliver any improvements to Palestinian lives. Siegman said Abbas was thus unable to sway popular support away from Arafat to strengthen his position, which could have facilitated what Israel had demanded of Abbas all along: a major crackdown on Palestinian militants -- in effect, a Palestinian civil war.

Jouejati basically agrees with that analysis. Israel and the Bush administration repeatedly called on Abbas to stamp out Hamas and other militant groups. But Jouejati said Abbas could not risk launching a civil war with nothing in return, or even concrete assurances for the future, from Israel.

"Had the U.S. leaned on Israel, had it pressured Israel into simply abiding by the guidelines that President Bush himself set out [in the road map], I don't think we would be here today with this almost unlimited violence in the Middle East. And so, Washington has to come around to somehow develop the political will in being serious about carrying through what it says it is going to carry through," Jouejati said.

Bush administration officials would certainly object to that analysis. But even analyst Max Abrahms of the strongly pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy agrees. "The Sharon government really never took any strong steps against the settlers," he said "[Sharon's] rhetorical statements were quite promising for the Palestinians in the sense that he said that he was prepared to make 'painful sacrifices' in the West Bank. He never really showed that he was willing to do that, and certainly the U.S. government didn't pressure him to do so."

Abrahms, for the record, believes the road map is not definitively dead. He said it will remain a negotiating option for the future, but its goal of a Palestinian state by 2005 has certainly been put off.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has also been criticized by some observers for not totally stopping targeted assassinations during the seven-week cease-fire by militants. Jouejati said that's one reason the militants may have decided it wasn't worth their while to continue to observe their truce, and went ahead with the 19 August attack.

Under the road map, Israel was supposed to desist from such actions. But Abrahms said that Sharon never really accepted that part of the deal, and that his understanding was always that the Palestinians, led by reformist Abbas, would have to achieve a qualitative cessation in violence before Israel would offer anything in return.

"The cease-fire wasn't enough for that because there was no real evidence that the terrorists were getting any weaker or that they had in any way moderated their ideology. The terrorists groups refer to the cease-fire as a 'hudna,' meaning a short-term tactical cessation of violence to be started up again when times were propitious. So for Israel this wasn't sufficient," Abrahms said.

During the run-up the road map peace process, Sharon had made a number of statements suggesting that the former hard-line general was perhaps softening his stance on Palestinians. He vaguely said he would be a prepared to make a great sacrifice in the West Bank for peace, a statement widely interpreted to suggest he was ready to accept a Palestinian state.

But Jouejati, calling Sharon "media savvy," contends the Israeli prime minister was simply lying. Jouejati said that Sharon and many in his right-wing Likud party and other conservative Israeli parties would never countenance giving up the West Bank, which they consider to be historical Jewish land.

They also believe, Jouejati said, that Israel's security would be greatly threatened by a Palestinian state, which could muster the military resources to destroy Israel, which is the stated goal of the militants. "I do not think they want an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank or Gaza," he said. "They much rather would have a situation in which the Palestinians have self-government within Israel -- a Palestinian entity that is 'cantonized', not an independent Palestinian state. This, of course, despite the vision that President Bush articulated in the road map."

Meanwhile, the violence has again escalated. On 9 September, Palestinian suicide bombers killed 15 people, and on 10 September an Israeli warplane killed two Palestinians in an attempt to assassinate a Hamas leader.

Israel has also responded by reviving talk of expelling Arafat. The U.S. and others have urged Israel not to do that, saying it would be counterproductive.

Abbas's successor, Prime Minister-designate Ahmed Qurei, called Arafat's possible expulsion "adventurous and grave." He said expelling Arafat would end his chances of forming a cabinet and "blow up the Palestinian territories and the entire region."

Where does Middle East peace -- and U.S. policy -- go from here? Not very far, according Siegman of the Council on Foreign Relations. Siegman argues that with his attention focused on Iraq and the chances of success on Middle East peace slim, Bush is unlikely to risk heavy involvement.

"Israel will say, 'You see, terrorism hasn't ended and the Palestinians haven't begun to do what they're supposed to do.' Palestinians will say, 'There's no way you can ask us to do it if Israel never stops building settlements.' And the U.S., which was supposed to intervene and say, 'Hey guys, we're not going to accept this,' hasn't done this and is not about to do so, certainly not with an election coming up," Siegman said.