The United States is likely to present its new "road map" to resolve the Palestine problem, but indications are that Israel will stall for as long as possible any move to form a Palestinian state.
SENIOR officials in the Bush administration have said repeatedly that once the business of regime-change in Iraq is completed, they will turn their attention again to the Palestine issue. This means that before long the much-awaited `road map' to peace will be presented formally, though the details of the plan are already known. The United States has indicated that it considers Yasser Arafat's leadership to be an impediment to the kind of settlement it wants to see being made between Israel and Palestine. It has been advising other governments not to deal with Arafat. As part of its efforts to sideline Arafat and the Palestinian Authority (P.A.), the Bush administration had set a virtual deadline for Arafat either to share power with a Prime Minister or to risk further U.S. hostility.
Arafat was never opposed to the creation of the post of Prime Minister. Mahmoud Abbas, popularly known as Abu Mazen, was made Prime Minister-designate in March. He was a close associate of Arafat, but his recent pronouncements on the need to abandon the armed Intifada in favour of diplomacy and calls for reforms in the Palestinian administration have been controversial. They echo the demands made by the U.S. and Israeli governments in order to justify the non-implementation of the many agreements Israel signed with Palestinians since the Oslo accords.
After his appointment, Abbas took more than a month to finalise his Cabinet. Washington and Tel Aviv had indicated that they would prefer Muhammad Dahlan, the former Palestinian security chief of Gaza, to be the Minister in charge of security. When the Cabinet was finally announced in the last week of April, Dahlan got the coveted post of State Minister for Security, despite Arafat's misgivings about such a choice. Abbas himself holds charge of the Interior Ministry. As part of the compromise package, many Arafat loyalists were promoted and given important portfolios. At the end of April, the Palestinian Parliament approved the power-sharing arrangement. Abbas told the legislature that he would crack down on the militants, as demanded by Israel and the U.S. "There is no room for weapons except in the hands of the government," Abbas said. Importantly, he said that there could not be any justification for terrorism, "whatever the source". At the same time he reiterated that the Palestinian people would accept nothing less than the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital and an end to the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.
Significantly, one of the first announcements that Abbas made was that he would not undertake any diplomatic missions outside Palestine until Israel lifted the restrictions on the movements of Arafat. For more than a year, Arafat has been forced to remain incommunicado, the Ariel Sharon government having virtually quarantined him in his office in Ramallah. In the last week of April, Israel allowed certain high-level international delegations to call on Arafat.
That the Palestinians are not too happy with the latest developments was illustrated by the suicide attack on an Israeli target immediately after the new Cabinet was announced. The suicide-bomber belonged to Al Fatah, the group to which the President and the Prime Minister belong. Most of the recent attacks have been carried out by either Hamas, the main Islamist party, or Islamic Jihad guerillas. On the day Parliament gave its approval to the new Prime Minister and his Cabinet, another Palestinian suicide-bomber blew himself up outside a Tel Aviv cafe, killing three Israelis and injuring several others. Both the Fatah and the Hamas have claimed responsibility for the attack. Also, on the day Abbas formally assumed office, an Israeli helicopter gunship killed a leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) by targeting the car in which he was travelling.
THE new road map, drafted jointly by the U.S., the United Nations, the European Union and Russia in December 2002, calls for simultaneous concessions from both sides that would lead to the resolution of all disputes and eventually the creation of an independent state of Palestine in three years' time.
Despite the talk of having to make "painful concessions", Sharon's game plan is to preclude the creation of a Palestinian state by expanding Israeli settlements, expropriating Palestinian land and accelerating the economic dispossession of Palestinians. Sharon told the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, after the capture of Baghdad by U.S. troops, that "a new period of opportunity for Middle East peacemaking, which we mustn't let slip by'', had arrived. Sharon, whose dream is to create a ''Greater Israel'' stretching from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, was playing to the international gallery. The new road map envisages the creation of a Palestinian state by the year 2005, but this is a goal unacceptable to Likud Party ideologues. Likud's coalition partners, who represent the orthodox religious parties and settlers, have threatened to bring down the Sharon government if any existing Jewish settlement in the West Bank or Gaza is removed. Sharon had told Ha'aretz that some of the settlements would have to go when a Palestinian state came into being.
The road map has proposed the immediate dismantling of all settlements built after March 2001, freezing of all settlement activity and withdrawal from all occupied Palestinian cities. The P.A. is then supposed to reciprocate by cracking down on the violence on the West Bank. But recent statements by senior members of the Sharon Cabinet indicate that the Israeli government is not in a mood to make even token concessions. Israeli officials have said that the U.S. road map is only a sop meant for the British. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in his efforts to hard-sell the war against Iraq, had promised the international community that the Bush administration would turn its attention to the Palestinian problem once Saddam Hussein was defeated.
Israeli Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has virtually ruled out the possibility of an independent Palestinian state emerging in the near future. The former Prime Minister, whose hawkish views are similar to those of Sharon, told an Israeli newspaper that there would be international pressure, but the Israelis would have to resist it. The Likud-led government has influential friends in the Bush administration. The pro-Israeli cabal which runs the Bush administration is not serious about peace between Israel and Palestine. Powerful persons in the administration, such as Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Defence Secretary, Douglas Feith, number three in the Defence Department and Richard Perle, who was until recently with the Defence Advisory Board, were advisers to Netanyahu during his successful campaign for the Prime Minister's post in the mid-1990s.
During the Clinton presidency, Feith and Perle co-authored a policy paper for the Likud that advised the Israeli government to end the Oslo peace process, reoccupy the ceded territories and crush the P.A. The Bush administration has been accused by many American commentators of seeking to implement the Likud Party's foreign policy in West Asia. Sharon advised the Bush administration that the U.S. should turn its attention to Syria and Iran, the two real adversaries of the Zionist state that survive in the region. Earlier he told Washington that his government would submit more than a hundred amendments to the road map. Sharon also wants Palestinians to recognise Israel as a "Jewish state" and renounce their "right to return".
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom has said that the Palestinian side must first curb terrorism and violence. According to Shalom, Israeli concessions will be forthcoming only after an unspecified period of time. Leaders of Hamas have said that they are willing to halt violence if Israeli withdrew from the occupied territories. This is a view shared by the majority of Palestinians.
Osama Musa, the Palestinian Ambassador to India, says that peace can be achieved only if the Israeli forces withdraw from the occupied territories. An honest implementation of the Oslo accords by Israel would have ushered in peace, he said. He added that the agreement was drafted by the Israelis. "They cannot expect to have peace when their tanks are staring down our windows," said the diplomat. He said that the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the occupied territories was the main issue. He felt that other contentious issues such as that relating to the right to return could be easily sorted out once the Israeli Army moved out.
Diplomatic observers do not give much credence to new road maps drawn by Washington. The record of the past 50 years has shown that Israel has always chosen the route it wants to take. After the recent events in the region, it will be even more emboldened to draw its own road map.
Radical Palestinian groups have rejected the road map for peace. They say that as long as the occupation continues and their leaders are assassinated by Israeli authorities, the struggle will continue. Both Hamas and the Islamic Jihad have rejected Abbas' call for an end to the "armed chaos".