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Mapping the Road Map

Phyllis Bennis—April 23, 2003

The "roadmap" is a negotiating plan created by a diplomatic four-some--the US, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations--known as the Quartet. The group came together in August 2002 at the height of the international crisis that resulted from Israel's re-occupation of Palestinian cities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The roadmap was designed, ostensibly, to be presented to the two sides in a more or less take-it-or-leave-it fashion, to impose on the recalcitrant parties an internationally-sanctioned resolution of the conflict.

But that was before the Bush administration moved forward the process of redrawing the map of the Middle East through its war in Iraq. The overthrow of the regime in Baghdad, the sacking of Iraq's cities and much of its ancient history, and the devastation brought to the civilian population of the country has dramatically reshaped regional politics, in ways that are not yet fully apparent. With the Bush administration victorious in Iraq, crowing its triumphalism and reminding Syria of its unbridled power, with wannabe-king of Iraq Ahmad Chalabi boasting of his intentions to build warm and fuzzy ties (plus a rebuilt oil pipeline) with Israel, there is indeed a new Middle East being born. We don't know exactly how--but what is certain is that the roadmap of December 2002 will be retooled to reflect the power shifts of the post-Iraq Middle East of 2003.


The goals specified in the roadmap are significant. Unlike the Oslo process, the Quartet's roadmap specifically identified the objective of ending the occupation, as well as engaging in a negotiating process that will create an independent Palestinian state and provide for Israeli security. It even set out timetables--the first phase was supposed to be completed by May 2003. In that period Palestinians were supposed to stop the intifada, reopen security cooperation, recognize Israel's right to exist in peace and security, appoint an "empowered" prime minister, and begin drafting a constitution that would be subject to the Quartet's approval. Israel, in that same period, was supposed to allow Palestinian officials (only officials) to move from place to place inside the occupied territories, improve the humanitarian situation, end attacks on civilians and demolitions of homes, and pay the Palestinians the tax revenues due them; they were also to close the new settlement "outposts" erected since Sharon came to power in February 2002.

In fact, even before the public announcement of the roadmap, the Palestinians (though not their Israeli counterparts) were already well on their way towards implementing the requirements: particularly through the sidelining of Yasir Arafat through the US-imposed selection of Abu Mazen as prime minister, with no election and attention paid to Palestinian public opinion on the matter. Not until the next period would Israel have to withdraw its troops from the Palestinian-controlled areas it illegally reoccupied in 2002, and then only in small increments in response to increased Palestinian security cooperation. An actual freeze of existing settlements (not dismantling the totally illegal settlements, only freezing further growth) isn't required until the second official phase. In the third phase a "provisional" Palestinian state "might" be created, with temporary borders, and only after the Quartet approves each step would the final phase lead to negotiations on permanent status issues such as borders, refugees, Jerusalem, and settlements.

There are numerous serious problems and deficiencies in the roadmap. While "ending occupation" is a key objective, it is not defined, allowing Israel to claim that "the occupation" is over even while claiming permanent control of huge settlement blocs throughout the West Bank and Gaza, and maintaining control of all of Jerusalem as Israel's permanent capital. There is specific reference to several UN resolutions--242, 338 and 1397--but none to the broader requirement of compliance with international law, or the obligations of Israel as the occupying power to implement the Geneva Conventions. There is no reference to other specific and relevant UN resolutions, such as 194. There is no discussion of the right of return, other than the Oslo-style deferral of the issue of refugees to the final status talks that are supposed to be convened after the potential creation of the "provisional" Palestinian state.

Further, beyond the omissions and the lack of specificity in the roadmap, there is a larger problem. The so-called "Quartet" is much closer to a solo act with three back-up singers; US power easily dominates the other three. And because the rules of the Quartet are that decisions are made by consensus, the US has what amounts to a veto. After the Iraq war, waged without UN authorization and in violation of the UN Charter, that power disparity has only increased--but it was already clear.

The first evidence of this came in December 2002, when the final language of the roadmap was completed. The Bush administration, acting in concert with Israeli wishes, announced that the text would not be made public until after the Israeli elections weeks later. After the victory of General Sharon's right-wing Likud-led coalition, announcement was delayed again until a cabinet was chosen. Once the Israeli cabinet was in place, another delay was announced until "the situation" in Iraq was resolved. On the eve of the Iraq war, in early March 2003, faced with rising anti-war sentiment that included anger at the perceived US-British abandonment of the Israel-Palestine conflict, Tony Blair insisted on a joint US-British announcement that the roadmap would be made public as soon as the newly-appointed Palestinian prime minister had taken office.

But with war in Iraq raging, the roadmap dropped off the agenda again. By early April General Sharon's government announced, with little fanfare and no response from the US or the other three partners of the Quartet, that Israel intended to impose new amendments on the terms of the roadmap, and if they were not accepted Israel would walk away from the negotiations.

The Israeli position also focused on keeping the US in charge, sidelining any potential influence of the other "Quartet" members, the UN, Russia and Europe. They raised particular concern regarding the one area where the Quartet as a whole was supposed to play a key role, in approving both Palestinian AND Israeli compliance with the roadmap, before moving on to the next phase. "We believe that the US has a dominant and leading role in this process and accordingly the supervision mechanism should be led by the Americans," the Israelis said. "The Quartet may assist the process by supporting the American effort, but it cannot judge on issues such as determining goals for progress, judging on the transition from one phase to the next or addressing security issues." On March 14, Bush announced his personal commitment to the roadmap. That same day, US National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice convened a meeting with Jewish leaders to reassure them that American support for Israel was not in danger. "We will lead the process and not the Europeans," she told them. "We know you are worried about the Quartet, but we're in the driver's seat," she said. Perhaps even more significant of US intentions was the recent appointment of Elliot Abrams, a member of the extreme pro-Israeli hawkish circles close to Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, as the administration's point person for the Middle East peace process.

For George Bush and for Tony Blair, the roadmap became a convenient way to try to convince the Arab world that they were still concerned about ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, without having to do anything to make it real. With the EU, Russia, and especially the UN (which should have been in the position of power within the Quartet) unable and/or unwilling to challenge US domination of the process, the roadmap and its sponsors provided little likelihood of finding a just solution to the crisis. After the overthrow of the Iraqi government, with humiliation and profound anger raging across the Arab world, the roadmap may be hauled out onto the public stage again to provide some modicum of political cover to the Bush administration, Tony Blair and Arab regimes under enormous pressure at home for their support of Washington's war. But with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his Israel-backing super-hawks unabashedly victorious in the internal Bush administration power struggle, it is unlikely that serious pressure on Israel is on its way. And those Pentagon-based neo-cons have significant bi-partisan backing in Congress. House Majority Leader Tom Delay announced he wanted to abandon the roadmap altogether, and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert told AIPAC, "we need to be wary" of dealing with Russia, the European Union and United Nations on a peace deal. "They have never been strong supporters of Israel," he warned. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told AIPAC that she is "seriously concerned about the timing, tone and effect of the president's statement of March 14. Let there be no weakening in our resolve, no softening in our stance, no lowering of the threshold for the cessation of violence." The audience had full confidence that San Francisco's liberal congresswoman was not referring to Israeli occupation troops killing Palestinian children or teenaged stonethrowers or international non-violent activists trying to prevent the demolition of Palestinian houses.

In its response to the December 2002 draft of the roadmap, the Israeli government stated that "The purpose of the road map should be an end to the conflict, rather than an end to the 'occupation'." That definition would entail making significant aspects of Israel's occupation permanent, ignoring the rights of Palestinian refugees and relegating them to permanent exile, reducing viable Palestinian independence and statehood to "certain attributes of sovereignty," enforcing an end to Palestinian resistance--and calling such a militarily-driven "solution" an end to the conflict. If the defenders of Israel's occupation in the Bush administration, now largely unchallenged in their influence and access to the president's ear, continue to have their way, that may be exactly what this road maps.