WASHINGTON — As the Bush administration turns its attention from war in Iraq to peace between Israel and the Palestinians, differences seem to be deepening between Washington and Jerusalem over the terms of the American-led “road map” to peace.
The main dispute between the two allies hinges on what conditions, if any, the Palestinians must meet before Israel offers reciprocal concessions. Prime Minster Sharon’s chief of staff, Dov Weisglass, reportedly told National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice Monday that Israel will make concessions only in response to concrete Palestinians steps.
But less than an hour before the Rice-Weisglass meeting, the White House publicly made clear that it rejects Israel’s approach. Rice laid out the White House position in a speech before a large crowd at a conference sponsored by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank, just before meeting Weisglass, participants said.
Weisglass reportedly told Rice that Israel will make significant concessions only after the Palestinians have proved, for an extended period of time, that they have suppressed terrorism, destroyed the terrorists’ infrastructure and taken measures to stop incitement to violence against Israel. He reportedly also said that the Palestinians will have to declare that they have relinquished their demand for the refugees’ “right of return.”
Pro-Israel lobbyists who listened to Rice’s off-the-record speech reacted with concern to what they described as her open, public rejection of Israel’s “sequential” approach to implementing the road map, and to her making clear that President Bush favors a “parallel approach.” The Bush view reportedly calls for Israelis and Palestinians to act simultaneously, rather than in reaction to steps taken by the other side. The lobbyists said that Rice’s remarks seemed to confirm a stance previously expressed only in private conversations by senior administration officials, that Washington does not accept Israel’s approach, which would have Israel take steps only after specific Palestinian steps are taken.
While the United States accepts Israel’s view that it is key to have a serious effort on the terrorism front early on, it does not accept the concept of Israel’s taking conciliatory measures only in reaction to Palestinian steps.
Several Israeli officials and American analysts with close ties to the administration insisted that the differences over sequentiality versus parallelism can still be finessed. According to one senior Israeli official, that was what Weisglass attempted to do in his three-hour Monday meeting with Rice. According to American and Israeli sources, Israel might reward Palestinian anti-terrorism measures with measures that are of relatively minor political weight — mainly humanitarian gestures — while deferring politically sensitive concessions, such as freezing settlement activity, to a later phase following tougher Palestinian anti-terrorist actions.
One senior Israeli official, Ephraim Halevy, Sharon’s national security adviser, suggested to the Forward that Israel may narrowly apply its sequential approach solely to Palestinian progress on terrorism. “Clearly, as long as terrorism is not uprooted, you can’t proceed,” Halevy said. “That is sequentiality, isn’t it?”
According to Israeli press reports, Halevy, a former Mossad chief, opposes the road map on principle, believing Israel should always insist on direct negotiations with its neighbors, rather than accepting internationally prescribed solutions.
American lobbyists for Israel are waiting anxiously for the outcome of the American-Israeli attempts to hammer out what will probably end up being a set of understandings on Israel’s reservations regarding the road map. If such understandings are not achieved, a prominent Washington Jewish activist said, “we will be in a difficult situation, where we will have to decide if we are confronting the president.”
For the time being, the activist said, Sharon has made it clear “that he is prepared to do things to engage on the basis of the road map.” Accordingly, he said, “no one in the community, except for [Zionist Organization of America president] Mort Klein is willing to undercut the road map.” The activist said that so far, all that pro-Israel lobbyists have done was to fire “shots across the bow” of the administration, to make clear that they will oppose attempts to pressure Israel into a accepting a plan that contradicts its security requirements.
Two such warning shots are the letters that the pro-Israel lobby on Capitol Hill is cajoling members of the Senate and House of Representatives to sign. The letters call on Bush to stick to his policy speech of June 24, 2002, by insisting on an end to terror and violence against Israel, a new Palestinian leadership not tainted by terrorism, transparency in Palestinian government and an overhaul of the Palestinian security apparatus as preconditions for Israeli concessions. As of Monday, 70 senators and 232 House members had signed the letters.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said that members of the conference would discuss the road map and their reaction to it after the Passover holiday. The discussion, he said, will take into account the new reality that was created in the Middle East as a result of the Iraq war. “There isn’t much division between us,” Hoenlein said. “Everybody wants to see change, even those who have been critical. They are critical because they want this [peace initiative] to succeed.”
Senior administration officials have recently met with congressional leaders and spoken with pro-Israel activists with a message that essentially says the president means business: The president has just brought about a revolutionary transformation in the Middle East, by wiping out one of Israel’s fiercest enemies. He is also pursuing Israel’s two other most dangerous enemies: Syria and Iran. Bush will also insist that moderate Arab states do their part to promote a peaceful environment in the region. The president is determined to push the road map, and he expects Israel and its friends in America to cooperate constructively.
“I think Sharon got the message,” said a prominent lobbyist for Israel, referring to the Israeli prime minister’s conciliatory tone in his interview with Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper this week. “I think we, in the community, are also hearing well what both the president and Sharon are saying.”