Fork in the Road Map

When Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visited Washington in early June, one might have expected him to be heralded as the poster boy for “freedom's march” in the Middle East -- democratically elected, a reformer, and a recognized man of peace. Yet after the meeting, Palestinian delegation members spoke to me in terms of only a “small success.”

For Abbas, or Abu Mazen, as he is also known, the Washington trip did represent a milestone of sorts in his efforts to resurrect the notion of there being a Palestinian partner for peace. While the Abbas program of reforms still has some way to go, the record of achievements so far has attracted praise. Abbas was elected on a platform of achieving Palestinian political aspirations through negotiations and peaceful means, while simultaneously pushing ahead with far-reaching democratic reforms.

The domestic agenda includes entrenching the rule of law, security restructuring, political pluralism, and financial transparency. In a break with the past, Abbas declared in his inaugural address, “I can find no justification for ignoring the rest of our national issues under the pretext that we are an occupied people.” Most significantly, he has reached an effective, if fragile, cease-fire with the armed factions, which has led to a dramatic reduction in violence. Palestinian Authority officials recognize that their next task is to produce a credible, long-term plan to deal with unauthorized weapons.

The Abbas visit, coming close on the heels of President Bush's meeting in Crawford, Texas, with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and followed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's tour of the region, may signify some kind of serious, if belated, American engagement with the Middle East's most defining conflict. But three options lay before the Bush administration. Only one of those options will lead to peace, and, naturally, it's the one that requires the most courage.

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Listening to Israeli and Palestinian officials, it's clear that their positions continue to diverge greatly. Acknowledgement of Abbas' platform in Washington has thus far not been matched by a real change in approach from the Israeli leadership. American heavy lifting of a kind not previously witnessed under this White House seems increasingly needed.

Sharon sees unilateral and limited settlement withdrawal in Gaza and four northern West Bank settlements as allowing Israel to retain more prized assets in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Sharon's advisers explain that Israel should then enjoy a lengthy time-out from the peace process. In the Israeli media, Sharon has outlined the list of Palestinian deliverables that are his precondition for further progress, and the bar has been placed teasingly out of reach. Sharon describes it as a “pre–road-map phase.” While many in Israel, perhaps the majority (and, it seems, the Labor Party), disagree with this approach, the priority is getting the Gaza withdrawal done. This tends to mute the debate on “what next.”

From the Palestinian side, 15 months of Israeli talk of Gaza withdrawals almost becomes a sideshow next to the continued construction of the separation barrier inside the West Bank, settlement expansion there, and the ongoing network of checkpoints and closures. Abbas used his Washington visit to repeat his call for an early resumption of permanent-status negotiations as the best way to maximize the prospects of peace and minimize violence.

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And where does President Bush stand on all this? Depends who you ask. Palestinian officials feel that Washington is beginning to understand the need for a political horizon. Israeli officials are confident that a post-Gaza time-out from political initiatives will prevail. Officially, the administration is committed to the “quartet road map” plan -- the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia. But Israeli dove and center-left Yahad-Meretz Party Chair Yossi Beilin told me how the road map was in danger of becoming a refuge for those “who want to do nothing,” as it contains “no implementation mechanism.”

America's reluctance to show its hand now may be understandable, and even smart politics, given the sense of a fragile and traumatized Israel confronting its settler nemesis for the first time. Once Gaza is out of the way, the “what next” questions are less easily shrugged off. Speaking to Israeli, Palestinian, and U.S. policy-makers and experts, one can broadly sketch three options for U.S. policy post-Gaza. One is to fudge, muddle through, and avoid strategic decisions. This approach was popular in the Iraq War planning for the “day after,” and it is always tempting.

The second option would be to shrink from big-picture politics, give Sharon his time-out, and focus on economic-rehabilitation issues and tiny steps for tiny feet on the ground. Salam Fayyad, the respected Palestinian finance minister, shared with me his concern that attributes of the Gaza withdrawal itself, such as border crossing or export arrangements, may intentionally be dragged out well into next year. This -- together with ongoing Israeli intransigence on settlements, closures, and prisoners, as well as Fatah incompetence -- risks giving Abbas so little by way of public political credibility that control is almost handed on a silver plate to Hamas.

The third option would be to seize the strategic opportunity that developments in Israel and Palestine present and make good on the president's commitment to see through a viable two-state solution. It demands political engagement, re-energizing the road map, detailing the political endgame, and showing how to get there. Such a policy would ignite the kind of debate that many Israelis, of all persuasions, are crying out for.

It is also the only meaningful option to strengthen Abbas and his reformist, nonviolent line. Fayyad again: “Economic assistance to the Palestinians is important and appreciated, but this is a political problem, and it requires political solutions. This is about freedom, which is nonnegotiable.” According to recent polling, the endgame approach would likely find favor with a majority of both peoples, with 54 percent of Palestinians and 64 percent of Israelis expressing support for the content of the detailed Geneva Initiative model agreement released last year (which I helped draft).

Many former U.S. officials have made a compelling case for why such an approach would serve American national interests. The success of Abbas, an anti-terrorism reformist, would send a strong signal to the rest of the region that moderates can deliver real achievements, and undermine the rallying cry of occupied Palestine as a mobilizing vehicle for extremists. Less obviously, it also serves the Israeli interest. According to former Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna, the big change in Israel is that today, most of the public understands that only a viable two-state solution can guarantee Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state.

So what is holding the White House back from pursuing this line? Conventional wisdom points to the influence of the unholy alliance of neoconservatives, evangelical Christian fundamentalists, and what is misleadingly known as the “pro-Israel” lobby (misleading because often, most Israelis see their own interests as being very different from how the American Israel Public Affairs Committee tends to portrays things).

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Is the combined power of those factions enough to derail the prospects of an American push for peace? The last four years are not a good omen, but casting back slightly further into history might suggest otherwise. The last two U.S. presidents, when they judged American interests to be at stake, both mustered the necessary political courage and pushed for greater engagement. George Bush Senior took the plunge when he judged there to be Israeli foot-dragging following the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference and linked U.S. loan guarantees to settlement policy. The comparative moment for Bill Clinton came in pushing through the Wye River Memorandum in 1998, when he felt the Oslo process collapsing under then–Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On both occasions the Israeli public sat up and listened.

After Gaza, President Bush has a real opportunity to show some spine when it comes to peacemaking, not war making, in the Middle East. Democrats should be there to challenge any slippage, encourage any push for peace, and steadfastly resist the temptation to outflank the administration from the right.

Daniel Levy was an adviser in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office and Justice Ministry, was a member of the official Israeli negotiating team on the Oslo Accords in 1995 and at Taba in 2001, and was the lead Israeli drafter of the informal Geneva Initiative.

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