WASHINGTON — Despite its public criticisms of the internationally sponsored “road map” to Middle East peace, the Israeli government quietly has agreed to accept the plan and help shore up the new Palestinian prime minister.
These concessions came in a surprise meeting Monday between Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and President Bush.
Apparently in response, the most influential pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, has dropped its effort to win congressional passage of new legislation that would curtail the controversial American-backed plan.
Supporters say that the road map, coupled with changes in the Palestinian leadership and the White House’s apparent commitment to advance negotiations, presents the best chance to resume the peace process in more than two years. Critics, however, worry that the plan will produce undue pressure from Washington on Jerusalem and force Israeli territorial concessions before a cessation of Palestinian terrorism.
Despite Israeli criticisms of the plan, Shalom sounded a note of cooperation Monday after meeting with Bush.
“There is a great deal of understanding between us,” Shalom said.
The Israeli minister was not scheduled to meet with Bush, but the president dropped in unannounced for 30 minutes during a White House meeting between Shalom and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.
A senior official in Shalom’s delegation said the foreign minister assured Bush that Israel would endorse “any road map which would be close to or identified with the president’s vision” — a reference to the speech delivered by Bush June 24, 2002, in which he said that the peace process could only move forward after significant political reforms in the Palestinian Authority and an end to terrorism. American officials have consistently described the road map as an extension of that speech, though Jerusalem and pro-Israel lobbyists have worried that the plan’s most recent draft could be interpreted as requiring Israeli concessions alongside Palestinian reforms rather than requiring the reforms to be verified before Israel must act.
This week, however, Israel and its lobbying allies appeared to change course. A senior official in Shalom’s delegation said that while Israel would make a last ditch effort to change parts of the current draft of the road map, it would not oppose the document once it is released by the White House.
Israeli officials and American diplomats expect the road map to be published in about two weeks, after newly appointed Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, finishes putting together his cabinet.
The plan was drafted by the Madrid Quartet comprising the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia. Top Bush administration officials are adamant that no more changes will be made to the current draft.
That was the clear message from Rice in her speech at this week’s annual Aipac conference. “This is not about re-negotiating the road map,” Rice said. David Satterfield, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, told the Forward that “there is only one text” of the road map, which was last updated on December 20, 2002. That will be the text Israelis and Palestinians will soon receive, he said.
The plan marks the first time that the United States is submitting an internationally endorsed peace plan to Israel and the Palestinians which is not a result of negotiations between the two parties. It is also the first plan with the specific goal of creating an independent Palestinian state and a specific deadline, 2005, for statehood.
Israeli officials are attempting to introduce last-second changes. Israeli diplomats in Washington confirmed reports that Israel has several major reservations, which it hopes to address before the plan is published. One demand is that the Palestinian state — provisional or otherwise — come into being only following bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which will result in an Israeli-Palestinian treaty. Another is that a settlement freeze be conditioned on a long and comprehensive period of security calm, proving that the Palestinian Authority has taken the appropriate steps to combat terrorism. Israel also does not want to dismantle settlements during the interim phase.
“How long would that period be, until we are expected to act?” said a senior Israeli diplomat in Washington. “That we will probably have to negotiate.”
According to a senior official in Shalom’s delegation to Washington, Bush said that he seriously intends to push ahead with the road map, regardless of the dynamics of the war in Iraq. The president also reportedly said that his commitment to pursuing peace between Israelis and Palestinians “comes from the heart.”
Shalom also agreed that Israel would take some “significant steps” to ease the mounting humanitarian crisis in the West Bank and Gaza, thus boosting reform efforts by Abu Mazen. Israeli and American officials agreed this week that the Palestinian prime minister’s first significant reforms must address the security situation. Both sides also agree that without a cessation of Palestinian terrorism, Israel cannot be expected to make significant concessions.
During separate speeches at this week’s three-day annual Aipac conference in Washington, Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell reiterated Bush’s position that Israel must freeze settlement activity in the territories once the P.A. takes serious steps to curb terrorism.
“Settlement activity is simply inconsistent with President Bush’s two-state vision” Powell said, drawing jeers from some crowd members. “As the president has said: ‘As progress is made toward peace, settlement activity in the occupied territories must end.’”
Israel, meanwhile, is demanding that any dismantling of settlements in the territories be the product of final-status negotiations. It is also insisting that during any interim period the Israeli military retain the authority to act against terrorists and their infrastructure in the West Bank and Gaza.
The Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported last week that Israel is also seeking to strike from the road map the reference to the Saudi peace initiative as a source of authority for the plan, because that initiative calls for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders. Although Israel would like to see these demands and reservations anchored in the road map’s text, Israeli diplomats said that some of them could be addressed in the course of implementing the plan.
As Israel attempts to amend the road map — either by textual change or interpretation — its allies in Washington appear to be toning down their efforts to pressure Congress to address Jerusalem’s concerns. Aipac activists appear to have decided not to seek additional, stronger legislation codying Bush’s June 24 speech, as they had done with the fiscal year 2003 foreign operations appropriations bill which the president signed into law in February.
Instead, thousands of Aipac members spent Tuesday asking congressman to sign letters calling on the president to insure that implementation of the road map is not governed by a predetermined timeline.
Israel wants the implementation to be dependent on Palestinian progress in implementing political and security reforms. Aipac executives expect an overwhelming majority of members of both houses of Congress to sign the letters.
At this week’s annual conference, Israel’s reserved acceptance of the road map seemed to dampen the enthusiasm of Aipac activists. The crowd at the immense ballroom of the Washington Hilton was mostly silent when speakers talked about efforts for obtaining peace between Israel and its neighbors.
Hawkish remarks, however, drew fervent applause. Receiving a particularly warm response was former Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer, one of America’s leading Evangelical Christian activists. Bauer, who delivered the conference’s opening speech Sunday, said that it was an “obscenity” for officials in Washington to suggest “that the people of Israel should give up more in order to get peace.”
God gave the Land of Israel to the Jewish people, Bauer said. And then — referring to America’s international partners in drafting the road map — Bauer added: “Neither the U.N. nor the E.U. or Russia or any quartets or trios or no one else can give away land that does not belong to them.”
The remark drew a lengthy, standing ovation.
Powell, in turn, told conference attendees that “no challenge, no opportunity, is more important, more pressing, than the quest to put an end to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.” Rice spoke about a “new stage for Middle East peace.” Other officials accentuated the significance of the financial reforms on which the P.A. has embarked, and the appointment of Abu Mazen as the Palestinian prime minister.
American officials are making it clear that for all intents and purposes, they view Abu Mazen as the new executive chief of the Palestinian authority. Satterfield said that the United States will regard Abu Mazen’s Palestinian Cabinet as “a new devolution of power away from Yasser Arafat, away from his failed leadership.” He described the newly appointed prime minister as “the best hope for changing the situation” within Palestinian society. Satterfield also said that as far as the United States is concerned, “the new prime minister is the supreme administrative authority,” both in the realm of security and in the realm of peace negotiations with Israel and the international community.
American diplomatic sources told the Forward that Washington is already urging its European and Arab allies to make Abu Mazen their chief interlocutor, instead of Arafat. One Arab diplomat confirmed that report.
Abu Mazen, shuttling between the West Bank and Gaza, attempted this week to form a broad government, with representatives of all Palestinian movements, including armed Islamic opposition groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But Palestinian sources seem united in the assessment that the Islamic opposition movements will not be a part of the government put together by Abu Mazen.