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Road Map vs. Reality

with Rob Malley, The Washington Post, 6 May 2003

Nothing is ever straightforward in the Middle East, and the "road map" finally presented last week is no exception. The plan has no hope of being implemented, and yet it is crucial that its implementation be pursued.

That the road map is not an especially helpful set of instructions for getting to a final settlement should be evident. It consists of a number of steps that Israelis and Palestinians are expected to undertake simply because they are being asked to do so -- without these steps being precisely ordered or defined and without an agreed method of verification or any indication of what happens if obligations or timetables should slip. Most important, the road map follows a gradualist, sequential logic that is a throwback to the failed concept of Oslo, and it lacks a detailed, fleshed-out delineation of the terms of a permanent status agreement.

The result is likely to be endless debate between the parties about who has met his obligation and who has not, who needs to take what step and when -- interminable disputes about process when what is needed is total engagement on the substance of a permanent political settlement. If everything that is mapped out -- a crackdown on radical Palestinian groups; reform of the Palestinian Authority; a freeze on Israeli settlements; agreement on the contours and attributes of the transitional Palestinian state, to name but a few of its signposts -- needs to take place before the parties even reach the stage of negotiating a durable peace, we are not going to be much further advanced 10 years hence.

But the fact that the road map cannot and will not be implemented doesn't make it irrelevant.

First, it is a crucial reminder of basic political principles that have been forgotten after more than two years of violent practices. These principles include the need to end violent confrontation, stop the settlements and rapidly replace occupation and conflict with a comprehensive peace agreement in which a viable and sovereign Palestinian state is established alongside a secure Israel. By repeatedly and vocally articulating these themes and fleshing out the additional components of a comprehensive agreement, members of the Middle East "Quartet" and their Arab partners can help re-legitimize the notion of a lasting peace in the eyes of the Israeli and Palestinian people and accustom them to its requirements.

Second, this new diplomatic initiative can serve as a catalyst for domestic transformations on the Palestinian, Israeli and U.S. sides, without which resumption of a meaningful political process will remain illusory. The Palestinian national movement has to conclude its ongoing internal deliberations with an unambiguous decision to halt all military aspects of the uprising and recognize that the Palestinian Authority must enjoy a monopoly on the use of force. Israel must put a stop to provocative actions that far exceed legitimate security requirements, and its people must choose a leadership that understands what is needed to achieve a sustainable peace. Meanwhile, the U.S. administration needs to break with two years of long-distance involvement and invest the necessary political and diplomatic capital to resolve this conflict.

Reasons for hope and despair exist in equal shares. The protagonists, bloodied by 21/2 years of battle, appear exhausted and unwilling to surrender, but eager to find a dignified way out. Economically, Israelis and Palestinians are suffering badly -- with far more suffering for the Palestinians in absolute terms but unprecedented hardship for Israelis as well. Palestinians are questioning the strategic direction of their uprising -- or rather the lack thereof -- with rare candor. A new government is in place, led by Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, who has from the start objected to the militarization of the intifada. In Israel, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon enjoys sufficient credibility to take steps for peace, should he be so inclined. The United States, fresh from its military success in Iraq, has greater regional influence and added reason to demonstrate that it can exercise it evenhandedly. It is being pushed in this direction by the one leader on the international stage with some influence over President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

But the flip side is equally clear. While the two sides are drained by the unrelenting violence, they also have become increasingly numb to it. The new Palestinian government may not be able to rein in militant groups, particularly given the state of its own security services and chaos within the Palestinian community. There is great uncertainty about Sharon's intentions -- whether he will seize this opportunity or play for time, seeking to avoid any tough political decision. As for the United States, it has, over the past two years, given ample reason to doubt its commitment to a vigorous, balanced approach -- reason that will only swell as the presidential election nears.

The utility of the road map lies in its existence, not its content. The Quartet should concentrate on immediate steps to transform the reality on the ground, keep the parties focused on the ultimate objective of a final status agreement by 2005, avoid protracted negotiations over the contours of a provisional Palestinian state or the definition of an Israeli settlement freeze, and leave domestic Palestinian decisions to the Palestinians themselves. It is this approach that will set the stage for the next diplomatic phase. With that momentum established, Israelis and Palestinians can thank the road map for services rendered, set it aside and move directly to the task of achieving a just and lasting peace.