JERUSALEM — Rising tensions between Washington and Damascus may serve to delay the launch of the much-anticipated “road map” to Israeli-Palestinian peace, senior Israeli officials told the Forward this week.
An escalation in U.S.-Syrian tensions is likely to heat up Israel’s northern border, the officials said, forcing Washington to concentrate on yet another Middle East crisis and to postpone the new initiative on the Israeli-Palestinian front.
The Bush administration had been expected to send a senior envoy to the region in the coming days to begin discussions on implementing the road map, launching what is seen as a potential new phase in the frozen Israeli-Pales-
tinian peace process. The peace initiative was expected to follow quickly on the heels of the Iraq war, partly as compensation to British Prime Minister Tony Blair for his risky backing of President Bush. The tensions with Syria, however, could put the new moves on hold.
Further complicating the timing of the American peace initiative is the turmoil within the Palestinian Authority, where prime minister-designate Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, was to have presented his new Cabinet last week, clearing the way for the release of the road map. Abu Mazen’s initial presentation of his new roster to P.A. chairman Yasser Arafat last weekend reportedly led to a shouting match, and many Israeli officials remain skeptical of Abbas’s ability to assemble a reformist, terror-fighting Cabinet that can win confirmation. They are thus predicting an indefinite delay in the presentation of the road map.
Prime Minister Sharon, nonetheless, is behaving as if the presentation of the road map is a fait accompli and is directing his aides and advisers to prepare for the potential fallout, both diplomatic and political.
Sharon got a taste this week of the political turbulence that may await him once the road map is published, after remarks he made in an interview to the daily Ha’aretz newspaper about the theoretical removal of settlements in the West Bank, elicited howls of protest from right-wing Cabinet ministers inside and outside his own Likud Party.
“Our whole history is bound up in Bethlehem, Shiloh and Beit El,” Sharon told Ha’aretz’s Ari Shavit, “and I know that we will have to part with some of these places.” Although Sharon added that removal of settlements would only occur within the framework of a final status agreement, he was immediately criticized by allies on his right for “selling the store before negotiations have even begun.” One Likud minister, Uzi Landau, publicly declared that Sharon’s statements “reflect his own views, not those of the Likud,” while a settler leader from Shiloh told reporters that his settlement’s future was “more secure than Sharon’s political future.”
The opposition Labor Party, despite skepticism over Sharon’s intentions, promised to support the prime minister if the road map causes his right-wing coalition partners, National Union and National Religious Party, to bolt the government. That, in turn, caused jitters among senior Likud ministers who feared losing their jobs in a reconstituted Likud-Labor unity government, particularly Foreign Minister Sylvan Shalom and Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Skeptics were quick to point out that Sharon had offered no new concessions in the interview and in fact had hardened Israel’s stance on several key issues. On one point, freezing settlement construction and dismantling illegal outposts, Sharon said no steps need to be taken until the “final stages” of negotiations, despite the fact that, as Ha’aretzitself pointed out in an editorial the day after the interview, the road map calls for those steps to be taken in the first of the plan’s three stages.
Sharon also laid out a new demand, said to be near the top of the “comments” brought to Washington this week by his chief of staff, Dov Weisglass, that the Palestinians must renounce their so-called right of return as a precondition to launching the road map’s implementation.
Israeli officials concede that there is little chance U.S. officials will agree to such drastic changes in the road map’s existing draft, which currently leaves the Palestinian “return” issue to a later stage. Palestinian moderates have said repeatedly that the right of return is a bargaining chip they will relinquish only in the final stages of negotiation. Israeli aides say Jerusalem will probably settle for an American “side-letter” supporting the Israeli positions.
Israel is also trying to minimize the official role accorded in the road map to the so-called Madrid Quartet, the diplomatic team comprising the United States, Europe, Russia and the United Nations. Senior officers in the army’s General Staff have proposed that Israel persuade Washington to limit international participation in the fledgling peace process to countries that supported the American war effort in Iraq — thus nixing countries such as France and Russia in favor of others such as Britain and Spain.
Nonetheless, signs have emerged recently of a split between the army’s top brass, which views the road map as a positive gain for Israel, and the Cabinet, most of whose members see it as a form of imposed peace. Army officers, particularly within the powerful Planning Division of the General Staff, privately describe the road map as a favorable fruit of the successful war on Iraq. Similarly, officers view the appointment of Abu Mazen — along with the growing international pressure for a complete halt of Palestinian terror — as a victory for the political steadfastness shown by Sharon and the defense establishment since the start of the Palestinian intifada.
Meanwhile, opinions within the defense establishment are split on the overall impact of the war in Iraq, particularly how it will affect Arab and Palestinian willingness to progress toward a near-term arrangement with Israel. Some Israeli defense analysts, in tune with their conservative counterparts in Washington, believe the removal of Saddam Hussein is likely to send positive shock waves throughout the region and encourage moderates to press for internal reforms and external tranquility.
Others, however, believe the widespread Arab sense of humiliation at the swift American victory could produce a reaction similar to the one that swept the region following the Israeli military knockout in 1967 — growing stubbornness and rejection of any accommodation, whether with Israel or with the United States.
Indeed, Israeli intelligence officers are warning that the American rout of Iraq is likely to spur, and not hinder, the efforts of countries such as Iran and Libya to achieve a nuclear capability that might deter Washington from emulating the Iraqi experience elsewhere. According to this analysis, the current Syrian confrontation with the United States should be viewed as an ominous “holding pattern” employed by Damascus until its ally Tehran can achieve nuclear deterrence vis-à-vis the United States.
Although the Israeli press was rife this week with widespread derision towards the “inexperienced” and “foolhardy” Syrian President Bashar Assad, one seasoned defense analyst told the Forward that Assad has been waging a careful and usually successful game of “brinkmanship” with the Bush administration. Hoping to emerge as the new leader of pan-Arab nationalism, Assad has been testing American patience, by supporting both Saddam and Palestinian terrorists, but has taken care not to cross any red line that might elicit an American military reaction against Damascus.
The analysts point to the fact that despite his bluster, Assad has effectively reined in Hezbollah, preventing it from carrying out any serious terror activities against Israel, for fear of a massive Israeli reprisal that could jeopardize his own regime. Both Assad and Hezbollah, the experts say, are now banking on the completion of Iran’s nuclear ambitions as a new launching pad for both anti-Israeli and anti-American campaigns.
Thus, in the wake of the campaign in Iraq, Israeli officials are now pressing the administration to address the “real danger” in the area, which is Iran. In private messages to the president and the secretary of defense, and through the Aipac lobby in Washington, Israel is claiming that the American victory in Baghdad will ultimately come to naught if the Iranian threat is not dealt with forthwith. Many Israeli policymakers are thus convinced that the new tensions with Syria, and even the looming road map diplomatic drive, are insignificant sideshows compared to the burning need to confront Tehran.