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Give Bush's roadmap a chance

By W. James Antle III
web posted June 9, 2002

An Israeli prime minister and Palestinian leader shake hands as an American president looks on. The Palestinians officially renounce terrorism and recognize Israel while the Israelis offer territorial concessions in the pursuit of peace. Pundits contemplate the promise of the Middle East peace process.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, right, and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, left, shake hands watched by U.S. President George W. Bush after their closing statements to the media following their summit meeting at the Royal Palace in Aqaba, Jordan on June 4
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, right, and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, left, shake hands watched by U.S. President George W. Bush after their closing statements to the media following their summit meeting at the Royal Palace in Aqaba, Jordan on June 4

If this description of the recent summit between President George W. Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the new Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas evokes a sense that we have been here before, you are right. This could just as easily be a reference to that famous handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn. Instead of bringing peace, the Oslo accords were followed by more violence, this time emanating from territories effectively governed by Palestinian leaders. Israelis gave up land but did not get security in return; Arafat made promises but did not fulfill them.

Some see President Bush's "Roadmap" to peace as Oslo all over again, an investment in a peace process that will once again lead only to disappointment, failure and lives snuffed out by terrorists. Saul Singer, editorial page editor for the Jerusalem Post, did not sound an optimistic note concerning the talks between Bush, Sharon and Abbas. Nationally syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer bluntly pronounced them a failure. Many doubt the president's roadmap will lead to anywhere; that is, anywhere better than where Bill Clinton's constant exhortations for the "process" to move forward led.

The situation in the Middle East is not one that lends itself to optimism. No one has ever gone broke betting against the prospects for peace in that troubled region. There are things in life that never seem to come to pass no matter how much one wishes they would. The Red Sox will not win the pennant; the Israelis will not resolve their dispute with the Palestinians and their Arab neighbors.

Yet there are reasons why it may be worthwhile to give the roadmap gambit a try. It may be a long shot, but there is the possibility of a different outcome. Why? Bush is not Bill Clinton and Sharon is not Rabin or Ehud Barak. There are reasons to believe that Abbas may prove that he is no Arafat. The combination of a U.S. president who is both proactively pro-Israel and resolutely anti-terrorism, a hardheaded Israeli prime minister unwilling to sacrifice long-term security objectives in exchange for empty promises and a responsible Palestinian leader may be what is needed to break this longstanding stalemate.

Clinton saw Oslo as part of his all-important legacy, causing him to relentlessly push land-for-peace swaps even after it became apparent that they were not making Israelis any safer from terrorism. He invited Arafat to the White House more than any other world leader, conferring unprecedented legitimacy upon the PLO leader. Bush by contrast will not deal with Arafat, rightly regarding him as an untrustworthy negotiation partner who is at best unable and at worst unwilling to contain terrorist attacks against Israel. Sharon for his part has initiated tough security measures that would have been unthinkable under a Labor government, which he has shrewdly been able to connect with the post-9/11 American war on terror. Even if he does opt to "go wobbly" in an unlikely pursuit of a "Nixon goes to China" moment, his hard-line Likud colleagues and religious party coalition partners will pull him back toward an emphasis on tangible security. Now come reports that Abbas will shun Hamas due to their intransigence in response to his appeals for an end to terrorism.

The plain truth, as no less a figure in the Israeli right as Sharon admitted, is that it serves neither the interests of Israel or the Palestinians for the present political arrangements to continue. A self-governing Palestinian state – that is, with the big "if" of a civilized leadership willing to peacefully coexist with the Jews – is preferable to the Israelis uncomfortable attempts to control the territories. But the Palestinians need to see that they have more to gain from peace than from terror.

Sharon has been at work demonstrating the first part of what it will take for Palestinians to reach this conclusion. Intercepting terrorists, jailing militants, bulldozing buildings, using substantial armed force and at times literally bringing his forces to Arafat's doorstep, he is showing that terrorism is a costly option. Israel can't stop the Palestinians from resorting to an indirect war through terrorist violence, but its vast military superiority can keep the terrorists from winning. In a thoughtful National Journal column, Jonathan Rauch once compared then-candidate Sharon's tactics to Ronald Reagan's peace through strength approach. Reagan showed the Soviets that the Cold War arms race was not something they could ever hope to win.

But the second part of this equation is that the Palestinians need to have some hope that their lives will improve through non-terrorist means. This is where the concessions envisioned by Bush's roadmap come into play. Abbas must prove he can reform the Palestinian Authority not just for the benefit of the Israelis, but also his own people. Delivering on these promises will in turn empower him to do more to combat militant groups, curb anti-Israeli incitement and otherwise build a normal civil society among the Palestinians. Dismantling settlements, creating a bona fide Palestinian state and surrendering territory are difficult but necessary Israeli contributions to this cause.

To be sure, there are numerous problems that lie ahead. Abbas must prove that he can deliver on his promises and actively oppose the forces that yearn for Israel's destruction. As Fareed Zakaria warned in Newsweek, "Arafat will try to derail this peace process. He has no incentive to see his prime minister succeed." He is not completely out of the picture yet. There are extremists on both sides who do not want peace and reject the very possibility of coexistence.

There are also issues over what the final peace would look like. No peace plan can legitimately entail the demographic displacement of the Jewish people by inventing a "right of return" for millions of Palestinians who have never lived in Israel proper in the first place. A Palestinian state should be off-limits until it enhances rather than detracts from the overall peace and stability of the region.

Bush has shown time and again that he is a friend of Israel. He also understands the evil nature of those who murder women and children in the service of twisted ideologies. He is far better equipped than Clinton to chart a pragmatic, results-oriented course to peace. As long as the roadmap does not become more important than its objectives, pressuring Israel to make concessions regardless of actual results, this renewal of the peace process is worth taking a chance on. It doesn't have to be another Oslo. Indeed, let us pray that it won't be.

W. James Antle III is a senior editor for Enter Stage Right.

Other related stories: (open in a new window)

  • A new Mid-East peace plan by Carol Devine-Molin (June 2, 2003)
    Carol Devine-Molin isn't all that confident about the prospects for peace even with a new road map
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