One of President George W. Bush’s professed goals in going to war with Iraq was to change the political dynamic in the Middle East. A demonstration of U.S. willpower and military resolve was intended, at least in part, to convince Arab leaders that politics as usual, especially support for Islamic terrorist groups, could not continue. That included Arab support for the nearly three-year-old "second" intifada against Israel.

Having overthrown Saddam Hussein and occupied Iraq, Bush has finally assumed his role as the necessary arbitrator of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a role he had shunned by refusing to deal with Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat. On June 4, Bush convened a summit in Jordan between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the new Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to launch the administration’s "road map" to peace officially. Sharon and Abbas, their speeches largely written by U.S. diplomats, agreed to begin the arduous process of negotiation. Only days after the summit, five Israeli soldiers were killed in two separate attacks by Palestinian extremists. To what extent Bush is willing to stay the course—to "ride herd" on both parties, as he put it—and pay a political price for progress between Israelis and Palestinians is now being tested.

In theory the road map calls on both sides to make a series of concessions designed to build trust and to move toward a two-state solution by 2005. Abbas and the Palestinian Authority must disarm militant Islamists and other terrorists, and thus put an end to attacks on Israeli civilians. Sharon must halt the establishment of further Israeli settlements in the occupied territories and eventually dismantle settlements that make the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state impossible. At the June 4 summit, Abbas denounced all violence against Israelis. Sharon, less forthcoming, promised to remove "unauthorizedÉoutposts."

Reaction from rejectionists in Israel and among the Palestinians was swift. Predictably, both Abbas and Sharon were denounced for conceding too much. Any progress toward peace will require the suppression on both sides of powerful internal political factions opposed to Israel-Palestinian coexistence. Abbas, though, is seen by many Palestinians as being under the thumb of the United States. Less than twenty-four hours after the summit meeting, Hamas denounced Abbas and vowed to continue the armed struggle. Arafat voiced similar objections. The subsequent attacks on Israeli soldiers were clearly designed to underscore Abbas’s political weakness. Although the United States and Israel demand that he disarm the militants, by force if necessary, most observers agree that the Palestinian Authority’s security forces, devastated by Israel over the past three years, do not have the capacity to confront Hamas or Islamic Jihad.

In the meantime, what Sharon is up to is hardly clear. His apparent willingness to consider dismantling settlements caused a political firestorm, sending tens of thousands of outraged settlement supporters into the streets of Jerusalem shouting betrayal and vowing resistance. Civil conflict seems unavoidable, should Sharon order the army to remove settlers. Sharon, of course, is an architect of the settlement movement and has built his political career on pandering to the most fervid elements of the Israeli right. Is he really prepared to change course at this late date? Not only the Palestinians are doubtful.

Still, Sharon has surprised many by the forceful way he won approval for the road map from his fractious, right-wing cabinet. In making his case, Sharon for the first time referred to the West Bank and Gaza as "occupied" territory and openly questioned the wisdom of continuing to rule 3.5 million Palestinians. He has also, for the first time, endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state and conceded that the viability of such a state requires that it control a contiguous territory. In return for the cessation of terrorist activity, he has promised to remove the onerous Israeli military presence and "restore normal life" to the Palestinians. At the same time, in the aftermath of the recent killings, he has assured Israelis that the Palestinians will get "nothing" until terrorist attacks stop.

Can Bush move either side forward? It is unclear exactly what sort of pressure he will be willing to exert, especially on Sharon. This is not a president who has shown a willingness to alienate his political base, one that includes strongly pro-Sharon evangelicals and neoconservative Jews. Having refused to deal with Arafat because of his complicity in violence, can Bush champion Abbas while killing goes on? Yet to abandon Abbas is to hand victory to the extremists.

President Bush is notorious for "not sweating the details." In Afghanistan and Iraq, his inattention to what comes after military victory continues to erode confidence and trust in U.S. words and actions. There is widespread suspicion that he wants to create the appearance of involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, but will be content to maintain the status quo during the run-up to the 2004 presidential election. At this point, such skepticism is all too justified. Like much of Bush’s foreign policy, the road map so far has been more photo-op than effective diplomacy.

Despite the recent attacks, there is a profound imbalance of power between the Israelis and the Palestinians, one that only the United States can help put right. Any real hope for peace begins with the dismantling of illegal settlements in the occupied territories. Any hope for Abbas to emerge as an alternative to Arafat and as a genuine Palestinian leader committed to nonviolence depends on his ability to gain tangible concessions from Israel, thereby undermining the appeal of Hamas and others. Only the United States can make that happen. Will Bush sweat the details in this case? Will he press Sharon to take the crucial first step by removing Jewish settlers, and not just marginal "outposts," from Palestinian land? Without such a gesture on Israel’s part, the new Palestinian prime minister will soon become irrelevant and the road map will lead back to a very familiar place.

June 10, 2003

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Published in the 2003-06-20 issue: View Contents
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