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What is the "Road Map" that President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, on the eve of the Iraq war, seem so convinced will end the Palestine-Israel conflict?

The "roadmap" is a negotiating plan created by a diplomatic four-some—the U.S., 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 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 have 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 was indeed a new Middle East being born.

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 to create some version of 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 declare and observe a unilateral cease-fire leading to the end of 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. Israel was also to immediately close the new settlement "outposts" erected since Sharon came to power in March 2001, and, also as part of phase one, to freeze all settlement activity. The roadmap did not require Israel to dismantle existing settlements, all of which are illegal under international law, but only to freeze further growth.

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 U.S.-imposed selection of Mahmoud Abbas, or Abu Mazen, as prime minister, with no popular election and little attention paid to Palestinian public opinion on the matter. The first phase was supposed to end in May 2003; but by that time Israel had moved only cosmetically against a few settlement "outposts," and actually escalated the attacks against Palestinians supposedly prohibited under phase one: curfews, attacks on and killing of Palestinian civilians; demolition of Palestinian homes and property, destruction of Palestinian institutions and infrastructure, settlement growth, etc. In consequence, violence against Israelis, both soldiers and civilians, continued as well. In the second phase there would be the "option" of creating a "provisional" Palestinian state in 2003, with temporary borders. Only after the Quartet approved each step would the final phase lead to negotiations on permanent status issues such as borders, refugees, Jerusalem, and settlements.

There were numerous serious problems and deficiencies in the roadmap. While "ending occupation" was identified as a key objective, it was not defined, allowing Israel to claim that "the occupation" was 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 was 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 was no reference to other specific and relevant UN decisions, such as resolution 194 mandating the right of return of Palestinian refugees. In fact, there was no discussion of the right of return at all, other than the Oslo-style deferral of the issue of refugees to the final status talks that were supposed to be convened after the potential creation of a "provisional" Palestinian statelet.

Further, beyond the omissions and the lack of specificity in the roadmap, there was a larger problem. The so-called "Quartet" was much closer to a solo act with three back-up singers; U.S. power easily dominated the other three. And because the rules of the Quartet were that decisions were made by consensus, the U.S. had what amounted to a veto.

The first evidence 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 U.S.-British abandonment of the Israel-Palestine conflict, Tony Blair insisted on a joint U.S.-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 U.S., or the other 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 U.S. in charge, sidelining any potential influence of the other Quartet members, the UN, Russia and Europe. Israel raised particular concern regarding the one area where the Quartet as a whole was supposed to play a key role, in approving Palestinian and Israeli compliance with the roadmap before moving on to the next phase. "We believe that the U.S. has a dominant and leading role in this process and accordingly the supervision mechanism should be led by the Americans," the Israeli government 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, U.S. 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. She was right. Neither the United Nations nor any of the other Quartet members were even invited to attend the June 2003 Aqaba summit heralding the roadmap. And the "international monitoring team" announced at the summit was solely an American creation, to be staffed by CIA and Pentagon officers and headed by a Bush administration official.

For George Bush and for Tony Blair, the roadmap became a convenient way to try to convince the Arab world that even as they attacked Iraq 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 U.S. domination of the process, the roadmap and its sponsors provided little likelihood of finding a just solution to the crisis.

At the much-hyped Aqaba summit on 24 June, 2003, Abu Mazen dutifully repeated the words the Bush administration had demanded: the armed Intifada must end. Sharon, for his part, spoke only of closing "unauthorized" outposts—a far cry from the roadmap's official requirement for the closing of all settlements ("authorized" or not) established since March 2001.

President Bush, who also spoke of "unauthorized outposts" in his Aqaba speech, echoed Sharon's limited interpretation. The Israeli diplomatic position focused on keeping the U.S. in charge, sidelining any potential influence of the UN, Russia or Europe. Israel raised particular concerns regarding the one area where the Quartet as a whole was supposed to play a key role, collectively monitoring the requisite compliance of the roadmap by both the Palestinian and Israeli sides, to be confirmed before moving on to the next phase. Instead, the Israelis took the position that, "we believe that the U.S. has a dominant and leading role in this process and accordingly the supervision mechanism should be led by the Americans. 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."

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 any possibility of viable Palestinian independence to "certain attributes of sovereignty," enforcing an end to Palestinian resistance—and calling such a militarily-driven solution an "end to the conflict."

In the meantime, Israel continued to create new facts on the ground. When the Israeli government carried out the photo-op closing of five of the tiny unoccupied satellite settlements (mostly a single trailer and water tank surrounded by fencing), extremist settlers answered the move by erecting ten new outposts. Along with the settlements themselves, the most significant was its construction of what Palestinians called the "Apartheid Wall," an electrified barrier almost twenty feet high separating the occupied West Bank from Israel.