Sunday, September 07, 2003

It's rare for me to post an entire article of mine, but this piece from the Daily Star in mid-May (which I regretted writing around the time of the Aqaba Summit, and which I cannot link to a URL) has suddenly become strangely relevant -- again.

The road map is dead
The policy of the US and Israeli governments to isolate Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has been a fiasco. That was always expected when the Bush administration and the Sharon government reduced the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to one individual--one who now has every incentive to demolish the road map to peace.

The absurdity of the Israeli position might be gauged by reading through a Jerusalem Post article on Monday, following the spate of Hamas attacks against Israeli targets at the weekend. The article highlighted the debate within the Israeli cabinet over whether to banish Arafat. In the end, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided against it.

As the paper reported: “Sharon said that from his point of view removing Arafat from the Mukata would create a ‘less comfortable’ situation for Israel than if he continues to be holed up in his compound.” It also noted: “Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who in the past was a major proponent of expelling Arafat, said at the meeting that now he should not be removed … To do so, according to Defense establishment officials, would severely weaken Abbas.”

The passages show the sheer ludicrousness of the Israeli position. Both Sharon and Mofaz effectively admitted they could not circumvent Arafat, after months of advocating a policy based on the premise that the Palestinian leader could be marginalized. Worse, one of the justifications for not exiling him was that this might harm Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, the very man supposed to represent a legitimate alternative to Arafat.

The Israeli defense minister probably caught his own inconsistency, because the Post article continued: “Mofaz said that there (are) now effectively two concentrations of power in the PA, and that Arafat is doing everything he can to trip up Abbas and keep him from gaining real control.” However, it is apparent that Abbas’s chances of gaining control are minimal: “Mofaz also said he has his doubts about Abbas seriousness in taking overall security responsibility.”

These facts alone suggest it was a bad idea to turn Arafat into a foe of a negotiated settlement. It was plain from the outset that the Bush administration, encouraged by Sharon, missed the forest for the trees. By focusing on undermining the Palestinian leader, the US and Israel gave Arafat the road map as hostage. The only problem was that while the US administration probably did this involuntarily, Sharon is delighted to see the plan founder.

In an editorial yesterday this paper pointed to a discrepancy in Washington’s strategy, namely that it seeks to remove a man who, for all his faults, “is the closest thing the Arab world has to a legitimately elected leader.” There may be some truth there, even though Arafat is as authoritarian as they come. However, he so controls the reins of power in the Palestinian territories that he never allowed a credible alternative to emerge from within his Fatah movement.

One of the aspects of the road map that is most intriguing is that while it sets up a detailed mechanism to make Arafat less relevant, it does not, and cannot, bar him from political life. He will always retain an ability to clog up the process, and his control over patronage, combined with Palestinian rage against Israel and the US, would probably mean he could win an election scheduled for the first phase of the plan. That would have the effect of turning the road map on its head, making Arafat its chief implementer rather than prime target.

Sharon wants to make changes to the road map and empty it further of its content. He can do this because US President George W. Bush is unwilling to put his weight behind the plan. That’s why one should expect little vigor from Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was remarkably demure last week when Sharon implied he would talk to Bush directly about the road map, before telling an Israeli paper that he had no intention of dismantling settlements.

Neither Sharon nor Arafat will go through with the road map as it now stands. That leaves Abbas more exposed than ever. His only true friends are the self-deluded American and European officials who somehow believe he can hammer out a plan that most Palestinians loathe with an Israeli government that loathes it too. Meanwhile, Hamas and Islamic Jihad trash what remains of Palestinian credibility, giving Sharon more arguments to avoid dealing with essentials.

The road map is virtually a dead letter, and its sponsors are to blame. That means the US, but also the EU, the UN and Russia, all of which backed a plan containing the seeds of its own destruction. One might blame the sordidness of Sharon and Arafat. Yet the feelings of both men were always clear, and it is probably fair to say that no plan could bridge their differences.

No comments: