Apparently having learned nothing from the collapse of earlier efforts, the mainly American drafters of the road map included several features that almost guarantee its failure. One is the absence of a fixed timetable. Thus either party (in practice the Israelis, if the past is any indication) can hold up movement from stage to stage and within each stage. Another feature is the addition of interim phases to a process that is already prolonged. This means, in effect, the postponement of the most difficult aspect of the resolution of the conflict–the negotiation of issues like settlements, sovereignty, Jerusalem and refugees–until a third phase, which, if past practice is any guide, means indefinitely.
The theory of interim agreements, beloved of pro-Israeli “peace processors” in the Bush I and Clinton administrations, should have been buried for good by now, after the spectacular failure of the Madrid-Oslo approach, which relied on such phased interim agreements. But this theory is resuscitated once more in the road map, in the form of a gratuitous proposal for “an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders and attributes of sovereignty.” If the plan gets that far, this is a sure recipe for endless discord, which will be exploited by Israel to procrastinate further, while keeping the essentials of the military occupation and most Israeli settlements in business indefinitely, and restricting Palestinian control to as little of the occupied territories as possible–40 percent of the West Bank, if Ariel Sharon has his way.
It is here that the road map is the most flawed. For in failing to focus on the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, about to enter its thirty-seventh year, and on Israeli settlements, which underpin that occupation, the road map misses an opportunity to end this conflict. Instead, it concentrates on Palestinian violence and how to combat it–as if it came out of nowhere, and as if, were it to be halted, the situation of occupation and settlement would be normal. This is a reflection of the preponderant US role in the drafting of this document. It is also a sign of why it will probably fail, for official Washington is obsessively fixated on Palestinian violence as the root cause of all the problems between Palestinians and Israelis.
This obsession has led to an American focus on cosmetic changes in the Palestinian leadership, like the appointment of Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) as prime minister. His new government cannot possibly succeed in reducing Palestinian violence without a rollback of the tide of settlement and a release on the chokehold of the occupation. But that is unlikely to happen, for the Bush Administration’s obsession with Palestinian violence to the exclusion of all else will probably lead to a continued bias in favor of the Sharon/Likud interpretation of the road map. By this interpretation, before Israel is required to do anything, the Palestinian security services, eviscerated by two years of pitiless Israeli attacks, must be reconstituted by Abu Mazen’s choice to head them, Muhammad Dahlan, and then must wage a relentless war against the Palestinian factions that attack Israeli occupation forces and settlers in the occupied territories as well as civilians inside Israel. Palestinians complain that this means starting a Palestinian civil war before there is any indication that the Sharon government, dominated by hard-line supporters of the extension of settlements and the continued repression of the Palestinians, will do any of the things that are required of it. Nominally, the road map requires that both sides take steps simultaneously: Palestinian action against militant factions should take place alongside Israel’s dismantling of settlements, and releasing its grip on the more than 3 million people of the occupied territories, who have lived for most of the past two years under siege, curfew and constant threat of Israeli attack.
But with the neocons riding high in Washington, with the Pentagon having taken over many of the responsibilities of the State Department and the CIA, and with the Bush Administration already in campaign mode and the Israeli lobby flexing its grotesquely well-developed muscles, there should be little doubt which interpretation of the road map will prevail in Washington. All that remains is to await precisely how this latest fledgling dove will turn into road kill, and what such a development will portend.
Should the Sharonistas who dominate the Bush Administration continue to prevail, as they have in nearly every Washington showdown since September 2001, not only will this effort fail, as they and Sharon desire, but the Palestinians will be blamed for it. There will undoubtedly continue to be enough Palestinian violence to justify this, though it will pale alongside the routine, mechanized violence of the occupation. Beyond the daily brutality of a foreign army policing and denying the rights of a civilian population while their land is being stolen for the benefit of settlers, force has been used indiscriminately in heavily populated areas to crush Palestinian resistance, as per the words of Lieut. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, the Israeli army chief of staff: “The Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people.”
Israel can probably continue to rely on the existing American media double standard, whereby Palestinian civilians slaughtered in packed urban neighborhoods by battlefield weapons like heavy machine guns, helicopter gunship missiles and tank cannons are only “collateral damage” in the search to assassinate militants, and do not count as much as Israeli civilians slaughtered in Israeli cities by Palestinian suicide bombers, while the three-to-one ratio of Palestinians to Israelis killed (most on both sides being civilian) is constantly ignored. Thus, over one ten-day period, twenty Palestinians, mostly civilians, were killed, and went unnamed and unmourned in the US media, which instead focused on three Israelis killed in Tel Aviv by a suicide bomber.
In the long run, it will not be possible to oblige Palestinians to protect the expansion of settlements and the continuation of occupation, which is what the Oslo accords did; during the decade after negotiations began in 1991, the settler population more than doubled. If this is what the road map tries to do, it will fail. It remains to be seen if even a fair implementation of this profoundly flawed document can revive the vanishing prospects of a two-state solution, or if this has been rendered untenable by thirty-six years of relentless settlement and occupation dedicated to sabotaging the possibility of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. If so, Palestinians and Israelis will have to find a new means of living together peacefully in the same land, a prospect that daily seems ever more remote.