The Road to Aqaba

Before the Iraq War, administration neoconservatives were fond of saying, "The road to Jerusalem runs through Baghdad." In the wake of the war and of George W. Bush's June 4 summit meeting in Aqaba, Jordan, many people in Washington think they were right. Liberal columnist E. J. Dionne Jr. wrote in The Washington Post on June 6, "One core claim of the war's supporters was vindicated on Wednesday when Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, and Mahmoud Abbas, his Palestinian counterpart, committed themselves to the president's pathway to peace. Defenders of the war always said that overthrowing Saddam Hussein would change the political dynamics of the Middle East. In the short term, at least, they have been proved right."

But are they right?

Neoconservatives argued that the administration's success in Iraq -- measured not only by a quick victory but by the installation of a pro-Israel regime -- would lead to the resolution of the conflict in Israel. That has not happened at all. Instead, the United States, after a quick victory, has encountered profound difficulties in occupying Iraq.

It was these difficulties rather than the initial successes that finally led the Bush administration to intervene forcefully in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

After September 11, the Bush administration was divided over what to do about Israel and the Palestinians. Secretary of State Colin Powell believed that resolving the conflict was essential to stabilizing the Mideast and ending the threat of Islamic radicalism. He favored trying to revive the negotiations that the Clinton administration had pursued. But Pentagon and National Security Council neoconservatives wanted the administration to back Ariel Sharon's Likud Party, which opposed a Palestinian state and sought to defeat the Palestinian opposition militarily. Sharon's backers in the administration argued that by ousting Saddam Hussein and installing a pro-Israeli government (like that of exile Ahmad Chalabi), they could isolate Palestinian radicals and force an agreement on Sharon's terms.

Bush pursued the semblance of a compromise between the two factions. He paid lip service to the State Department position, coming out in favor of a Palestinian state and of the road map that representatives from the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations had endorsed in April 2002. This road map laid out parallel concessions by the Israelis and Palestinians on the way to a Palestinian state by 2005. But in practice, Bush and the administration slighted the road map and tilted toward the neoconservatives and the Sharon government.

In a crucial June 24, 2002, speech, Bush put the onus for resolving the conflict entirely on the Palestinians: They had to replace their elected leader, Yasir Arafat, and end the armed intifada before the United States would support negotiations toward a Palestinian state. This March, on the eve of the Iraq War, Bush tried to appease his British and Spanish allies by reiterating his support for the road map. But he also suggested that he would welcome changes and amendments to the document, which was widely understood to be an invitation to the Sharon government to tamper with the document's timetable and requirements. After the war, when the quartet formally presented the road map to the Israelis and Palestinians, the United States was represented merely by its ambassador. And Bush continued to suggest that he would listen to Sharon's reservations about implementing the road map.

But midway through May, sometime during or after Powell's disastrous trip to the region, Bush and the administration abruptly changed course. Bush came out strongly in favor of the road map. He recognized Abbas' authority even though Arafat remains Abbas' superior. He rejected Sharon's insistence that the Palestinians make concessions prior to the Israelis; instead, Bush insisted that the Israelis and Palestinians make parallel concessions. He also rejected Sharon's insistence that the Palestinian leadership not merely repudiate but also eradicate terrorist organizations before negotiations could take place. Bush successfully pressured Sharon to endorse the agreement and to get the Israeli cabinet to support it.

What precipitated this change? The Bush administration is notoriously closemouthed, but a rough picture can be drawn from the confluence of events, off-the-record interviews and informed speculation. The key is the occupation in Iraq, which, by mid-May, had left the administration embattled and on the defensive. Inside Iraq, the United States faced a large, noisy and armed opposition to the occupation. The Pentagon attempt to install Chalabi as the head of a new government had failed, and its choice for the head of occupation, retired Gen. Jay Garner, had to be replaced. In the surrounding Mideast, al-Qaeda resurfaced in Saudi Arabia and Morocco, suggesting that the Iraq War, far from weakening terrorist networks, had actually revived them. And in Europe and the Middle East, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction fueled a pre-existing distrust of American motives.

These events undermined the neoconservative faction in the administration. The failure of the occupation was laid at the feet of Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, who had appointed Garner; the growing scandal over the missing weapons of mass destruction pointed to Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who had created a special intelligence unit to hype the threat. On a broader level, these events reinforced the State Department's argument that in order to achieve stability in the Mideast and stop terrorism, it would be necessary to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And attempting to bring Israelis and Palestinians together would have an added benefit of diverting attention away from the growing mess in Iraq.

Sometime this spring, the faction that favored active American support for the road map gained two important recruits: National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Karl Rove, the president's political adviser. Rice was won over to the State Department arguments for intervention. Rove, meanwhile, saw Bush's effort to resolve the conflict as a way of promoting Bush as a peacemaker. Rove has tried to model Bush on Theodore Roosevelt; just as Roosevelt went from Rough Rider to the architect of the Russo-Japanese peace agreement, Bush would go from citizen-soldier to diplomat. And Bush's success as peacemaker would win the gratitude of the Jewish voters and financial contributors on which the Democrats have depended.

Rice and Rove accompanied the president during his trip to the Middle East. Bush put Rice and Assistant Secretary of State John Wolf, a Powell ally, in charge of making sure that the road map moved forward. In short, Aqaba represented a victory for the faction in the administration that favors active and relatively evenhanded intervention in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it came as a result of failures rather than successes in Iraq.

Administration supporters have also claimed that the war prompted Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to endorse the road map at a June 3 meeting with Bush in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt. That, too, is highly implausible. In February 2002, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah had put forth a peace plan, which Egypt and Jordan endorsed, calling for Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for Israel's acceptance of a Palestinian state on the lands Israel had occupied after the 1967 War. If these countries had been skeptical about the road map, it was chiefly due to doubts about the Bush administration's commitment to enforcing it. Once Bush showed he was serious, they climbed aboard.

The Palestinians endorsed the road map in the fall of 2002, well before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. They had suffered almost 2,500 casualties since the second intifada began in September 2000. Unemployment stood at 50 percent in the West Bank and close to 80 percent in the Gaza Strip.

On the matter of the road map, then, Israel was the lone holdout. So Sharon's apparent reversal, his new willingness to go along, probably was influenced by the U.S. show of force in Iraq. But Sharon also had purely domestic reasons for backing Bush and the road map. Since the beginning of the second intifada, Israel's economy has collapsed -- the result of a precipitous drop in tourism and foreign investment. Its unemployment is now nearly 11 percent. "Holding 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation is a bad thing for Israel, for the Palestinians and for the Israeli economy," Sharon told Israeli legislators on May 26.

Arab, Palestinian and Israeli support for the road map could certainly waver in the months ahead. Many in Sharon's own Likud Party and its coalition partners on the far right are opposed to a two-state solution, as are Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. Sharon may still be hoping for the kind of Palestinian state that would resemble the South African bantustans. Pentagon neoconservatives, while currently preoccupied with Iraq, may regain the initiative in administration foreign policy toward Israel. And Bush himself may back off as he encounters resistance from Sharon or from Palestinian terrorists. But for the moment, Bush and his administration are committed to peace in the former Palestine -- and you can thank the bumpy roads in Baghdad for that.

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