Leaders Gamble on Road Map Amid Tempered Expectations

By Chemi Shalev

Published June 06, 2003, issue of June 06, 2003.
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AQABA, Jordan — In the end, President Bush could not have hoped for more. He got Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas to say as much as either man could permit himself to say. Sharon gave his strongest-ever endorsement of Palestinian statehood and pledged to start immediately dismantling illegal settlement outposts. Abbas issued his bluntest denunciation yet of Palestinian violence and pledged an end to what he called the “armed intifada.”

Bush committed himself — both publicly and privately, Israeli officials said — to continued, high-level involvement in the process. With the eyes of the world trained on them, the three leaders and their host, King Abdullah II of Jordan, announced a series of concrete steps to end the 32-month bloodshed and restart the quest for peace.

On the surface the event resembled past Middle East peace summits, with their scenic backdrops, fluttering flags and ceremonial walks to the microphones. But there was a new sobriety here. All sides have learned the hard way that the true test is not what is said before the cameras, but what happens afterward, on the ground. For all the flags and bunting, the tone was business-like, at times curt. The only leader who mentioned “dreams” here was the one with arguably the least invested, Abdullah.

Sharon was preparing even before he left Aqaba for the political trouble he is expected to face as removal of settlement outposts begins. Protests are expected mainly from settlers themselves, but not from their patrons in the Cabinet, who have shown no inclination to leave the coalition despite Sharon’s sudden turn toward moderation.

American observers were struck by the extent of Sharon’s concessions here, particularly his acknowledgement of “the importance of territorial contiguity in the West Bank for a viable Palestinian state.” Contiguity, the Americans said, carries an implicit pledge to dismantle existing settlements, something Sharon has resisted offering up to now.

But Sharon’s own aides downplayed the significance of the breakthrough, suggesting that contiguity could be attained by building bridges and tunnels to link separate salients.

Israeli officials continued to insist that the main test is still the ability of Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, to “translate his words into deeds” in fighting terrorism. Most top officials believe he has the will — that belief was a key to the concessions Sharon announced here — but they remain skeptical of his ability to outmaneuver Yasser Arafat, who remains a potential spoiler.

“I believe that Abu Mazen truly seeks to bring an end to terrorism and to return to the negotiating process,” Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the Forward in an interview shortly before the summit. “But, unfortunately, we have yet to see any change on the ground, and Yasser Arafat is still influential, encouraging violence whenever he can.”

Speaking behind closed doors, Israel’s top intelligence officials voice guarded optimism over Abu Mazen’s potential future performance. The optimism is reinforced by the elaborately orchestrated American effort to prop him up and establish his authority.

Many analysts believe, indeed, that it was Abu Mazen who was the main star and beneficiary of the back-to-back summits convened in Sharm al Sheik and in Aqaba this week. The summit in Egypt between Bush and Arab leaders was intended to provide Abu Mazen with a pan-Arab stamp of approval, while the four-way meeting in Aqaba was meant to establish Abu Mazen as the legitimate interlocutor and partner to the peace process, at the obvious expense of Arafat.

Israeli officials believe it was optimism over Abu Mazen’s intentions that spurred Bush to take the plunge in the first place and get personally involved in the complex Middle East peacemaking effort. At this point, the officials predicted, Abu Mazen’s actual performance will determine the president’s future involvement. If the Palestinian leader is seen as making a serious effort to curb terrorism, they say, the president is likely to notch up the pressure on Sharon as well.

The straining effects on American-Israel relations of the president’s newfound interest in the conflict were already apparent in the days leading up to the summit, as Sharon’s advisers tried to stave off American pressures for a “truly groundbreaking” Israeli statement in Aqaba. For the first time since the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks — when Sharon warned Bush not to turn Israel into “another Czechoslovakia” — aides to Sharon were heard criticizing Bush and what they described as his “heavy-handed” new approach to the Israeli prime minister. “He is only interested in making headlines,” one Sharon aide said bitterly of the president’s push. “He will do anything for a good photo-op.”

Indeed, although most Israeli officials and analysts concurred that Bush’s continued and active involvement in the process was critical to maintaining the momentum created in the last two weeks, they were of different minds concerning Bush’s long-term intentions. Foreign Ministry officials believe Bush will disengage from the process in the coming weeks, as the American presidential campaign heats up. But others discern signals that the president may be “here to stay.” Defense Ministry officials, for example, quoted a senior Republican governor who recounted a recent meeting with Bush in which the president pledged to achieve a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian agreement during his second term in office. “And if he has no other choice,” the governor warned, “he won’t hesitate to impose a solution.”

Other officials cited a diplomatic dispatch from Washington that quoted Bush as saying, in a private White House meeting, “Sharon owes me one.”

Most Israeli ministers believe it is only because of Bush’s insistent urging that Sharon has already gone as far as he has — accepting, albeit with reservations, the “road map” to peace, speaking for the first time of the “occupation” of Palestinians by Israel and agreeing to remove at least some of the “illegal outposts” on the West Bank. Although recent polls show overwhelming public support for Sharon’s new positions, with 62% favoring an explicit “end to the occupation” in a poll published last weekend in Ma’ariv, the Likud and parties to its right remain in shock and turmoil as they try to decipher what the prime minister’s new intentions are.

Mofaz, who voted for the road map decision in the Cabinet despite having said previously that it was “bad for Israel,” argued that the Cabinet decision did not explicitly endorse the road map, in its current language, but rather should be seen as a vote to “jump-start the diplomatic process.

“The current phrasing of the road map is not good,” Mofaz told the Forward, “but what the Cabinet voted on was the steps in the road map that lead to an implementation of the Bush vision of June 24, including the 14 Israeli reservations, which the Americans promised to address seriously.

“Nonetheless,” he said, “the vote was very important, because it could mean jump-starting a political process, which I support.”

Mofaz rejected allegations that the new Israeli concessions were, in fact, a surrender to terrorism. “On the contrary,” he said, “the move was made possible by the steadfast stand of Israeli citizens against terrorism, by the largely successful efforts of the army to eradicate terrorist capabilities, and by the American determination to rid the world of terror, in the wake of the September 11 attacks. The Palestinians are beginning to understand that they won’t achieve a thing by means of terror and violence. What Sharon is proposing now is far less than what Palestinians were offered in September 2000 by the government of former prime minister Ehud Barak. The Palestinians have failed to secure what they sought most — a return to the 1967 borders, a division of Jerusalem and the right of return.”

Mofaz also appeared unfazed by the increasingly virulent criticism being leveled at Sharon by the far right, including leaders of the settler movement. “Most of the Israeli people, including the Likud, support the move,” he said. “All the ministers who voted in favor in the Cabinet, as well as those who abstained, in effect support the process. The only objections are being voiced on the extreme right.”

These “objections,” especially those voiced by certain rabbis in the settlements and right-wing zealots — who branded Sharon a “traitor ” — revived talk in Israel this week of the possibility of another attempt to assassinate a ruling prime minister who is seeking to make peace, just as the late Yitzhak Rabin was gunned down by a right-wing assassin in November 1995. Many Israeli politicians, including Sharon himself, were also taken aback by a statement made this week by Cabinet minister Avigdor Lieberman of the hawkish National Union party, who warned that any attempt to remove settlements in the territories would lead to a “civil war.”

Most Israelis, for all their support of the road map, remain skeptical of its chances of success. Polls show that they believe Abu Mazen will ultimately fail to rein in Palestinian terrorism. Talk of internal Israeli violence, therefore, is either premature, or, more likely, completely unfounded, politicians on the right insist. Only if Abu Mazen confounds the skeptics and proves to be as good as his words against violence, only then will Sharon be forced to reveal his true intentions. Only then will the strength of the fabric of Israeli society be put to the ultimate test.

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