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WebMemo #287 on Middle East

June 5, 2003

A Middle East Roadmap to Gridlock?

By

The June 4, 2003 trilateral summit meeting in Jordan that brought together President Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas was a small step in right direction. But there is a long, grueling, uphill journey ahead if peace is to be established.

 

Abbas Must Back Words With Deeds
The summit generated soothing rhetoric.  Abbas called for the end of terrorism against Israelis and said "The armed intifadah must end and we must use peaceful means in our quest to end the occupation and the suffering of Palestinians and Israelis."  Sharon stated "It is in Israel's interest not to govern the Palestinians, but for the Palestinians to govern themselves in their own state."  Sharon also freed 100 Palestinian prisoners, eased controls on Palestinian areas, and pledged to remove settlement outposts in disputed territory that had not been approved by the Israeli government.

 

The two leaders appear to have established a degree of trust that has been lacking in bilateral relations since Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat rejected a possible deal at the July 2000 Camp David summit and returned to terrorism against Israelis.  But Prime Minister Abbas must back up his words with deeds if that trust is to grow to the point that negotiating a genuine peace would be possible.

 

Unfortunately, it is unclear whether Abbas can deliver on his promises.  He lacks a secure political power base and could be dismissed as Prime Minister by Arafat, who remains President of the Palestinian Authority, if Arafat chooses to act as a spoiler.  According to U.S. officials, Abbas commands the support of only about 400 members of the Palestinian security services, which number more than 30,000.  And radical Palestinian factions such as Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad reject peace with Israel and have vowed to continue their terrorist attacks.

 

Abbas has pressed those groups to accept a ceasefire on attacks against Israelis, but a much more robust policy is needed to disarm and dismantle Palestinian terrorist groups to give peace a chance.  Abbas does not have the will or capability to crack down on such groups and needs the support of Arab states and the West to isolate and weaken them.

 

Marginalize Arafat, End Terrorism
The June 3 Sharm al Sheikh summit that brought Bush and Abbas together with the leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Jordan gave some hope on this score.  The Arab leaders condemned the "culture of extremism" and pledged to block support for terrorist groups and ensure that all financial aid is transferred directly to the Palestinian Authority, not to shadowy nongovernmental and charitable organizations that could be terrorist front groups.

 

This is a good start, but much more needs to be done.  For example, all Western and Arab aid should be funneled to the Palestinian Authority's Ministry of Finance, not to Yasser Arafat's office.  Washington also should press Arab leaders to downgrade their relations with Arafat, who was pointedly excluded from both summits, and upgrade relations with Prime Minister Abbas, whose standing already has been bolstered by the two summits.

 

If Arafat is not marginalized and terrorism ended, then the road map will soon lead to gridlock.  No Israeli government will take further risks for peace unless the Palestinians comply with their commitments and Arafat, who has made a career out of terrorism, has demonstrated again and again that he cannot be trusted.

 

The roadmap is more of a wish list of negotiating goals than a blueprint for achieving peace.  Although the Israelis and Palestinians have conditionally accepted it, much arduous diplomatic spadework is necessary to flesh out the details of its vague outlines.  President Bush has promised to "ride herd" on the process to keep it going.  But he should refrain from intervening unless absolutely necessary and put the burden on Israel and the Palestinians to work things out for themselves.  Excessive American intervention leads both sides to negotiate with Washington rather than each other, as the Clinton Administration soon discovered.  Most of the biggest breakthroughs in the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations have come through bilateral diplomatic efforts such as Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's 1977 visit to Jerusalem or the secret Israeli-Palestinian talks at Oslo in 1993.

 

Meanwhile, Bush must "ride herd" on the State Department and the three other members of "the quartet" who proposed the roadmap - Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations.  The Bush administration must stick to principles laid out in the President's June 24, 2002 speech, which stressed the importance of developing a Palestinian leadership untainted by terrorism.  (See:  "President Bush's Middle East Speech: A Breath of Fresh Air", by James Phillips)

 

Ending Terror Will Lead To Statehood
President Bush has ably guided American policy in dismantling two terrorist regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq.  He should not allow pressures for a diplomatic settlement at any cost to result in the establishment of a Palestinian state that would become a staging area for continued terrorism.  Palestinians must actively take systematic steps to crush terrorism before they attain statehood, not merely pledge to do so.

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