The National Catholic Review

With the end of hostilities in Iraq, the Bush administration, along with the other three members of “the Quartet”—Russia, the European Union and the United Nations—has released its “road map” for peace in the Holy Land. The plan consists of a set of coordinated steps by Israelis and Palestinians over three years to reach a common peace in which the Palestinians would gain a viable, independent state of their own. As a first step, the Palestinians have established a new government under Mahmoud Abbas as prime minister.

 

A moderate, Abbas played a key role in drafting the Oslo Accords and, with former Israeli deputy foreign minister Yossi Beilin, in designing a possible settlement for Jerusalem. Abbas has won the appointment of Mohammed Dahlan, the former Gaza intelligence chief, as head of security, and with C.I.A. advice is rebuilding the ravaged Palestinian security apparatus. His first and constant challenge will be to bring militant groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade to heel to prevent attacks on Israel.

Mr. Abbas begins with several handicaps. Palestinian President Yasir Arafat has not handed over complete authority to him. In particular, Arafat continues to control a number of Palestinian security agencies. The militant groups refuse to end their armed attacks on Israel, and the Israelis, even when there is a lull in Palestinian attacks, continue to carry out lethal raids on Palestinian areas under the pretext of preventing further violence. During his visit to the region on May 11, moreover, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell failed to get a public commitment from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to accept the Bush road map.

Mr. Sharon is due to visit the United States soon in an effort to persuade President Bush to alter the plan. The reported Israeli demands are deal-breakers. Before even accepting the road map, for example, the Israelis want the Palestinians to forswear the right of return of the 3.4 million refugees still living in exile. The right of return was one of the issues around which President Bill Clinton’s Camp David talks broke down in July 2000.

It will take considerable thought and effort to resolve the refugee issue, which poses three gigantic problems. The first is how to sell any deal to the refugees themselves, who have endured decades of suffering and indignity. The second is how to engage the neighboring states (or third countries) in accepting refugees on a permanent basis. The third is how to avoid provoking new crises in places like Lebanon, where, after the P.L.O. presence in the 1970’s, Palestinian refugees are regarded as a thorn in the body politic. For all these reasons, the Quartet should not repeat the mistake of the Clinton administration in leaving its resolution to the end of the process. Neither should it allow the Israelis to rip up the road map at the start by demanding unilateral Palestinian surrender of a significant right.

The road map is designed to avoid a catastrophic weakness in the 1993 Oslo Agreement, namely, making further implementation of the agreement subject to repeated negotiation. The road map does not dictate a settlement, but it does project simultaneous implementation of a schedule of reciprocal goals. The Israeli government, however, has sought a number of changes in the process laid out in the road map, and without jawboning from President Bush it can be expected to temporize.

First, the Israelis would prefer to make the goals sequential rather than reciprocal. Israel would not have to act until the Palestinians have fulfilled their obligations. Second, Mr. Sharon would postpone the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, some say for as long as 30 years. Third, the Israeli government opposes observers from Quartet members other than the United States monitoring implementation of the process.

The road map is far from perfect, but it provides a step-by-step plan supported by four major outside actors, including the United States. It is accepted by the Palestinian Authority. Only the Israelis are holding back. With the Iraqi threat ended and the geopolitics of the Middle East in flux, Mr. Bush ought to employ on Prime Minister Sharon the leverage Secretary Powell hesitated to use, to insist on full Israeli acceptance and compliance with the road map. To do less would be to court historic failure in imitation of Camp David II. To strive to build a broader peace out of victory in Iraq will be to emulate and, we hope, surpass the bold policy of the first Bush White House, which led for too short a time to genuine improvements in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship.

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