Tattered Road Map Still Legible

Amazingly, the "Road Map," has survived the Israeli cabinet's attempts to fold it into an origami dead duck with its "14 serious concerns" that it wanted the United States to sign on to -- and an Israeli assassination attempt on Hamas almost certainly contrived to provoke a suicide attack that would give Israel an excuse to break off talks.

As past precedent dictated, this attack was followed in sanguinary succession by a suicide bomb on a bus, and then more Israeli assassinations. But this time even the White House seems to have understood what was happening, singling out the initial assassination attempt for condemnation. What's more, it seems the United States is not accepting that the ensuing suicide attacks are a legitimate excuse to call off the talks.

There is, of course, a history behind this. Most recent Mideast peace processes have had a built-in self-destruct device that can, and will be, triggered by the fanatics on both sides if the old Yitzhak Shamir tactic of simply stalling annoys the Americans too much. And the "14 serious concerns" had exactly such a clause, which the violence triggered.

It is not paranoia to think of sabotage in this connection. When things looked too peaceful back in 2000, Ariel Sharon decided to go for a provocative walk around at the Al Aqsa Mosque. For the Palestinians, Sharon is, of course, not just any Israeli politician, but the one on Belgium's wanted list for his responsibility for the Sabra and Shatila massacre. And so the current Intifada exploded.

People have accused Sharon of many things, but rarely of stupidity. He knew what he was doing at Al Aqsa: Winning the next Israeli election, and frustrating the Labor Party's tentative moves towards a peace settlement. His recent behavior fell into the same pattern, talking peace while relying on the hawkish factions inside the Israeli services to mount a provocation -- confident that their counterparts among the Palestinians will rise to the bait.

The difference is that while no one holds the whole Israeli state, with all its armed forces, police and allegedly omniscient security services responsible for what one fundamentalist settler does, or indeed for what the Israeli Defense Forces do, the embattled Palestinian Authority -- with its police stations in rubble, its forces under regular attack by Israel, not allowed to move from one village to another, and even denied the tax revenues it is owed -- are still held to account for every last suicide bomber.

Don't Underestimate Bush

There is ample room for skepticism, or even scoffing, about the Road Map, yet strangely enough, there is indeed a tantalizing hint that things may be different this time. And it is not just that prominent voices such as former AIPAC luminary and U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, are pointing out the absurdity of conditioning peace talks on the shattered PA's ability to police other Palestinian factions.

Most liberals have underestimated President Bush. It is true that from appearances alone you would not trust him to ride a tricycle around a padded playground, but that belies his genuine accomplishments: In less than one year flat to have engineered, fought and won a war with no tangible casus belli, and in the teeth of strong opposition from most allies, is no mean achievement. Now it would seem that it is not just the State Department, but also the White House that is putting real pressure on Sharon to deliver.

Because without such American pressure, it is difficult to see any other rationale for the Likud Prime Minister to take the political risks he did with the Israeli right wing by announcing, completely out of character, that "Ruling three and a half million Palestinians cannot go on indefinitely," and adding that, "Today there are 1.8 million Palestinians fed by international organizations. Would you like to take this upon yourselves? Where will we get the money?"

Amazingly, he sounds convinced -- yet one does not have to be a cynic to doubt that he has had some sort of moral epiphany. Could it be he sincerely does not want to annoy George W. Bush? Or is his back against the wall for other reasons? The Israeli stock market soared when the cabinet signed on for the Road Map, showing that the money has no taste for continuing mayhem, and even less for a bruising confrontation with Washington.

The 14 Roadblocks

Before the Road Map launch, Sharon and the Israeli cabinet put forward the expected 14 "essential" Israeli amendments to the Road Map, which if accepted would have made the document as useful as a paper airplane.

The Israeli cabinet also resolved firstly and separately that it "clarifies" that, "both during and subsequent to the political process, the resolution of the issue of the refugees will not include their entry into or settlement within the State of Israel." This; of course, muddies rather than clarifies the issues; on one level it is a challenge to the Palestinians to pull out, since they are equally adamant that the "right to return" must be addressed, but on the other hand, it is so vaguely worded that anyone with the duplicity of Sharon can walk right through it.

The other fourteen points, as their drafters intend, are roadblocks rather than signposts. The first is to make it a precondition for progress that the weakened and besieged PA disarm and stop all armed activity while denying it the actual power to do so. The provisional Palestinian state would be an attenuated Bantustan with "certain attributes of sovereignty," with provisional borders and its airwaves, air space and external connections provided courtesy of Israel. While talking about the issues, settlements will not be on agenda apart from the "freeze" and the so-called illegal outposts, the status of the PA, and its institutions in Jerusalem.

Additionally, says the Israeli document, the road map has to lose all references to the Saudi peace plan, even though it was that initiative that launched the current process, as well as to any other UN resolutions other than 242 and 338 -- where, of course, the Israeli definitions differ wildly from everyone else's and even then only as an "outline." The key here is an attempt to get away with more than the 1967 borders.

Check the thermostat in hell

However, what Israel got from White House was a lot less than had they had publicly anticipated earlier. "The United States shares the view of the Government of Israel that these are real concerns, and will address them fully and seriously in the implementation of the roadmap to fulfill the President's vision of June 24, 2002," said the White House.

Basically, they said that the Road Map stands. Indeed Secretary of State Colin Powell's call afterwards for "contiguous territory" for the Palestinians, and his quite remarkable use of the term Bantustan at the negotiations in Aqaba last week, in effect, to describe the results of most Israeli peace suggestions, is in some ways a direct rebuttal of the intended results of the 14 points.

"It has to have contiguity, it has to be connected, it has to have means of moving about within that state," said Powell. "So it can't be chopped up in so many ways in some form of Bantustan that it would not really be seen as an honest effort to provide a state for the Palestinian people."

So while normally the clichés about the odds of a snowball in hell would spring to mind when considering this, there are so many anomalies that one almost wonders whether the odds may not have shortened. Something has happened, although it is not clear what.

If Bush concentrates on the original road map, in particular its invocation of the Saudi peace plan, he may pull this all off. It is a prospect that certainly worries the right wing in Israel, whose fan club in Congress this week launched its first condemnation of Bush. But Bush is mean and stubborn, and such criticism may backfire. I'd give a lot to eavesdrop on the conversations between the President and his deity at the moment.

Ian Williams writes on the United Nations for Alternet. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy in Focus, The Nation, and Salon.

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