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Selling snakeoil

Al-Ahram Weekly – 24 October 2002

Like a travelling salesman, US Middle East envoy William Burns arrived in the region at the weekend on the start of a 12-nation tour carrying in his briefcase a magic formula for ending the current Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
 
His “Road Map” — a six-page draft document based on talks last month between the United States and its Quartet partners from Russia, the United Nations and the European Union — proposes a new diplomatic track for resuscitating the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians and for creating a Palestinian state by 2005.
 
The US plan, on which Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was consulted at length during his two-day visit to Washington last week, sets out three stages for the gradual consolidation of Palestinian statehood over the next three years, building on a commitment President George W Bush made in a speech in June.
 
But there were widespread suspicions that Burns was trying to sell snakeoil. The road map looks less like an aid to navigating the long and tortuous route to a future Palestinian state and more like an American shortcut to its planned war with Baghdad.
 
The US is currently pursuing its campaign against Iraq through diplomatic channels in the United Nations. The White House desperately needs calm in the region before it can launch its expected attack.
 
The other Quartet members have been taking advantage of the US need to shore up Arab and European support to win limited concessions in the US document. The other members hope they can force America and Israel to make commitments now that they will find it difficult to renege on later, after the battle for Iraq is finished.
 
However, Burns, the US assistant secretary of state for the Near East, was quick to reassure Arab leaders that the United States was serious about resolving the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. “What I stressed on the Palestinian issue was also President Bush’s determination to realise the vision of a two-state outcome,” he said after talks with Jordan’s King Abdullah.
 
After meetings in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon and Israel, the US envoy was due in the West Bank town of Jericho today to meet a three-man Palestinian delegation comprising former cabinet ministers Saeb Erekat and Yasser Abed Rabbo and Legislative Council Speaker Ahmed Qureia.
 
The United States has refused to meet Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat. A US Embassy official in Israel said “We do not meet with Arafat. It is now official policy.”
 
Before the meeting Erekat cautiously welcomed the plan, but added, “What we need is a mechanism for the implementation of the US road map, a timetable and international observers provided by the Quartet to oversee the implementation of the plan. Without these three points the ideas will just remain a plan on paper.”
 
Erekat is not alone in fearing that little of the plan will materialise, a fate that has befallen previous initiatives such as the Mitchell Report and the Tenet Plan.
 
Officials at the Quartet meeting in Paris last Thursday told Burns that he must make it clear to Sharon that he has only days, at most a few weeks, to respond to the draft.
 
In the first stage, implemented over the next two months, Israel would cease military activity and house demolitions in the West Bank and Gaza, lift the curfews, stop confiscating Palestinian land and dismantle the settlement outposts built during Sharon’s premiership.
 
Meanwhile, the Palestinians would be expected to issue a clear statement recognising Israel’s right to exist, stop all violence against Israel, nominate a prime minister, begin composing a new constitution and restructure the armed forces under international supervision.
 
The second phase, from December to the end of 2003, will require Israel to freeze all settlement building and gradually withdraw from PA areas. By May 2003 they are expected to have returned to their pre-Intifada positions.
 
The Palestinians will hold elections and institute political and economic reforms, after which an international conference will establish a Palestinian state with provisional boundaries by the end of 2003.
 
Finally, there will be negotiations on a permanent agreement with the participation of the Arab states that will determine final borders and deal with the refugee issue and the status of Jerusalem. These talks are to finish sometime between 2005 and 2006.
 
Despite the priority given to quick progress on confidence building, there were grounds for concern about how acceptable the plan will prove to be.
 
First, an early obstacle on the White House’s road map is likely to be over the dislodging of Arafat. Palestinian political reforms and the appointment of a prime minister are designed to pre-empt the presidential elections due in January that Arafat was almost certain to win. Instead the Palestinian leader will be turned into a symbolic figurehead and real power invested in the prime minister, the cabinet and the parliament. It remains to be seen how quietly Arafat will go.
 
Second, the most onerous condition Sharon must meet is limited dismantling of the settlements. Although the outposts must be removed before Palestinian reforms are demanded, Sharon has to take down only settlements established during his premiership — the large building programme that took place during Ehud Barak’s tenure will be left untouched.
 
Even the construction freeze will be imposed only for the coming year, before the Palestinian elections. After that the US says “other actions” should be taken. Although this is assumed to refer to withdrawing from the occupied territories, the cryptic nature of the demand may make it meaningless in practice.
 
Third, there is considerable doubt about how committed Washington is to enforcing the dates it has set. Sharon is known to have expressed concern to Bush last week about having deadlines imposed on him.
 
An Israeli diplomat told the Jerusalem Post that the dates had been chosen mainly to satisfy the other members of the Quartet and were an ideal timetable rather than realistic. “Oslo was tied to dates,” he said. “We have learned now how those dates led to artificial crisis once they came near.”
 
Nothing substantial, like Palestinian elections or an Israeli withdrawal will happen till after the war in Iraq, when America’s priorities may have altered dramatically.
 
But most importantly progress along the route proposed by the road map cannot begin until Palestinian attacks end. Given the Israeli army’s inability to stop the attacks, including Monday’s bus bombing which killed at least 14 Israelis, even when it is sitting in most of the West Bank cities, the likelihood is that the plan will get stuck at the first stage.
 
What concerns Washington more is that in the short term Israel does nothing to provoke tension in the region while it prepares its war plans. This is why the US road map insists on an immediate halt to military action against the Palestinians including army fire in crowded areas, house demolitions and deportations of militants.

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