A Roadmap to Nowhere

"There can be no peace for either side ... unless there is freedom for both," declared President George W Bush, as he introduced his roadmap for peace in the Middle East to an expectant world (1).

By "freedom" Bush means the people of the Middle East will be given strict instructions on how to resolve their conflict. The Palestinians will be told what kind of government to install, whom to elect, when to elect them, why to elect them, and what kind of politics to practise. The roadmap for peace lays the ground for relentless intervention by a "Quartet" of powers (the USA, the EU, the UN and Russia) to oversee the Middle East's transition from conflict to peace by no later than 2005. Freedom doesn't get a look-in.

The roadmap sounds less like an historic strategy to negotiate a treaty between warring factions, than a Third Wayish attempt to wish away political conflict. It is a "performance-based and goal-driven roadmap, with clear phases, timelines, target dates and benchmarks aimed at progress through reciprocal steps by the two parties in the political, security, economic, humanitarian and institution-building fields" (2). It sometimes sounds as if the Quartet of powers is trying to get the trains to run on time, rather than resolving a clash of two nations.

Yet behind the new-fangled focus on timelines and targets, the roadmap seeks to impose a solution. It is "goal-driven" in the sense that the goal has already been defined by the Quartet, and there will have to be "clear, unambiguous acceptance by both parties of the goal of a negotiated settlement as described below," because "non-compliance ... will impede progress" (3). It is "performance-based" in the sense that the Quartet "will meet regularly at senior levels to evaluate the parties' performance," and will take an "active and sustained" interest in "monitoring" the emergence of a Palestinian constitution and elections (4).

The roadmap is profoundly anti-democratic. Like the peace process that gave rise to it, the map is premised on the idea that a solution to the Middle Eastern conflict can only come from outside the Middle East. The parties to the conflict are clearly too blinkered and untrustworthy to resolve the issues among themselves, and need the helping hand of a disinterested and rational outside power (or four), who can show them what their best interests are.

This approach has defined the Israeli/Palestinian peace process. From the Madrid Conference of 1991 to kickstart "a Middle Eastern peace strategy," to the "historic handshake" between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993, to the Oslo Accords of the same year -- the perceived wisdom has been that the further you are from the Middle East, the better placed you are to determine a sensible and fair outcome to the whole debacle.

In the world of the peace process -- not only in the Middle East, but in South Africa, Ireland and elsewhere -- the most authoritative are those who can rise above messy clashes and conflicts, who have no apparent self-interest in the end result, and who only want peace. This idea of resolution by a disinterested third party (usually the USA or the UN) is now seen as a commonsense approach to conflict resolution around the world -- yet it is the antithesis of democracy.

The roadmap confirms the final emasculation of the Palestinians. The Palestinians have always been party to the peace process from a position of weakness rather than strength. Like other US-sponsored peace processes, the Middle Eastern one came about as a result of shifts in the global political climate. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s, Western powers had a freer hand to impose solutions on conflicts around the world. The end of the Soviet Union and the isolation of the left-wing movements internationally put national liberation movements like the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) on the defensive.

Palestinians first got involved in peace talks at the Madrid conference in 1991, when the PLO leadership was increasingly isolated in the Arab world as well as internationally. During the 1991 Gulf War the PLO supported Saddam's Iraq, which alienated many of their wealthy supporters in and around the Gulf. It was from a defensive position of global and local isolation that the PLO entered the peace negotiations, during which it has made numerous concessions on its traditional goals and aims.

Now the new roadmap illustrates that the Palestinians -- as a community with political aims and aspirations -- no longer figure as an independent factor in the Middle East. Palestinian political life exists only inasmuch as it supports and subscribes to the broader requirements of the US-sponsored peace process. The "viable" Palestinian state envisaged by the roadmap will be one designed to suit external requirements, rather than being internally built and sustained by the needs and desires of the Palestinian people.

Consider the Palestine Authority's new office of prime minister. This was created and filled because America demanded it, rather than as an expression of Palestinian political will. Earlier this year, Bush officials said there could be no progress in the Middle East until Palestinians installed a prime minister. America's primary interest was to sideline PLO leader Yasser Arafat, who is seen by some in the Bush and Blair camps as a barrier to a settlement. So Palestinian leaders created a prime ministerial office and filled it with Mahmoud Abbas, in line with American diktat.

The Palestinian prime minister is in power (if you can call it power) to suit outside demands, rather than being anything like an embodiment of Palestinian will. Likewise, the roadmap describes how the Quartet of powers will keep a close check on the emergence of a Palestinian state, to ensure that it puts "tolerance and liberty" centre stage and follows the roadmap rules (5). In this vision for the Middle East, "Palestine" will be little more than a hollow shell, where the leaders' primary responsibility will be to the peace process and the roadmap, rather than to their own people or politics.

Many have interpreted the roadmap as an old-style US/Israeli assault on Palestinian demands. Yet for the defeat of independent Palestinian politics, this roadmap also turns Israel into a pawn of the Quartet powers. The roadmap makes a list of demands of the Israeli leadership relating to its borders, security and political culture. The roadmap may not have Palestinian interests at heart, but neither does it represent Israel's interests.

It remains to be seen whether the new Palestinian state due to be created by the roadmap will be "viable" -- the Quartet's favourite word. Durable political structures emerge from real struggles to decide the future and direction of society. The PLO, for all its shaky politics (a kind of unhappy marriage of Stalinism and Islam) and its documented corruption, was created and sustained by a struggle and by mass support from those who saw it as representing their interests. Its aims were internally generated, and it won fierce allegiance from the Palestinian people.

Will the Palestinians swear a similar allegiance to the hollow state envisaged by America's "performance-based and goal-driven roadmap?"

(1) President Discusses Roadmap for Peace in the Middle East, White House, March 2003
(2) A Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, US Department of State, 30 April 2003
(3) Ibid.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Ibid.

Brendan O'Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

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