National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 30, 2003

Relatives of Nellie Perov mourn during her funeral in Jerusalem May 20. She was among the victims of a suicide bomb attack on an Israeli shopping mall.
-- CNS/Reuters
Renewed violence assures rocky start for road map to Middle East peace


In a part of the world where peace plans are notorious for their rocky starts, it’s difficult to imagine a more harrowing opening sequence than that faced by the new road map to Middle East peace.

On May 17, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his newly appointed Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, met to discuss the plan. Just as the meeting, the first between Israelis and Palestinians in 31 months, was winding down, news broke of a terrorist bombing in Jerusalem. Sharon scrubbed a trip to Washington to discuss the road map, effectively freezing the process.

In the 48 hours that followed, four more bomb attacks occurred in rapid succession, leaving 12 Israelis dead and triggering the usual crackdowns in the Palestinian territories.

The new round of death, destruction and political impasse seemed to choke off the peace effort’s oxygen supply before it had a chance to breathe. The situation was aptly summed up by a Western diplomat who told The New York Times on May 19: “Anyone who tries to say anything positive right now is going to look stupid.”

In one small but revealing episode, NCR reached a spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry by cellular phone May 19, seeking comment on the road map. The spokesman politely explained that he was in the northern Israeli town of Afula, where a suicide bomb had just gone off, and he would need to call the reporter back in a couple of hours. Such is the way coping with terror has become grim routine.

Despite it all, however, most sources contacted by NCR still held out some measure of hope for the road map, a peace plan designed to be brokered by the so-called “Quartet” -- the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

“A year ago, I would have said this plan will be buried in the cemetery of good intentions that Sharon and Arafat patrol between them,” said Colin Shindler, an expert on the Middle East at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. “But there’s something different this time, both because of the appointment of Abu Mazen, and because Britain and the United States are determined to address the problem as a form of outreach to the Muslim world after Iraq.”

The road map, which was published April 30, calls on the Palestinians to crack down on militant groups and disarm them, while Israel is expected to freeze its settlements and pull its troops back from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Further steps would follow, leading to a final settlement in 2005.

Abbas has announced that the Palestinians accept the road map, while the Israelis have insisted on a halt to terror attacks before any peace process can begin.

Privately, Israeli officials have expressed reservations about the road map’s language on the question of Palestinian refugees. Currently some 3.5 million Palestinians assert claims to property in Israel lost after the 1967 war, and Israeli officials claim allowing them all to enter the country would amount to “demographic suicide.” The population of Israel is roughly 6 million, with 1 million Arabs.

Despite the violence of recent days, what’s the case for optimism on the road map?

First, Sharon appears politically positioned to make concessions.

“Sharon can begin the implementation of the road map without any risk of breaking up his governing coalition,” said Gershon Bashkin, Israeli coordinator for the Israeli-Palestinian Center for Research and Information, a left-leaning think tank in Jerusalem. “If the two extreme right-wing parties desert him, he could always bring in Labor.”

Second, Sharon has a powerful incentive to make peace -- securing his place in history.

“I believe he can go down in history as the second Ben Gurion,” said Rabbi Yehiel Poupko, a Chicago-based Jewish scholar and longtime observer of Middle East affairs, referring to the first president of Israel. “He wants to take the only state in the world without firm boundaries, and establish it as the fulfillment of the Zionist dream -- secure, recognized, with all the proper relationships,” Poupko said.

Sharon has made it clear that for now, while violence is still ongoing, Israel is not prepared to halt the settlements -- an essential element of the road map. However, David Saranga, deputy spokesperson for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, referred to a statement by Sharon in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, in which he conceded that “painful steps” will be necessary by the Israelis if peace is to be achieved. It was the first time he acknowledged, albeit indirectly, that some Israeli settlements in the occupied territories will have to be abandoned.

Third, the appointment of Mahmoud Abbas provides the Palestinians with a leader committed to pursuing a negotiated settlement.

“[Abbas] faces serious difficulties, but I believe most Palestinians want him to succeed,” said Missionary of Africa Fr. Justus Lacunza, director of the Pontifical Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies and a long-time observer of the Arab world.

Saranga asserted that Abbas, at least theoretically, has the tools he needs to combat terror in the form of 30,000 police and five security forces. Whether he has effective control over those resources is another question.

Fourth, the Bush administration may be more willing to push Israel into a settlement than many people believe.

“One of the misconceptions is that the Republican right and the Israeli right sing from the same hymn sheet. This is not the case,” Shindler of the University of London said. He noted that it was the first Bush administration that had threatened to withhold financial credits from Israel for the absorption of Soviet Jews, a move that led indirectly to peace talks in Madrid in 1991.

Finally, the involvement of the other three players in the quartet suggests strong international commitment to the peace process, including a role in overseeing implementation.

“The road map envisions international monitoring, a third party to sit on the fence and be the judge of who has done what,” Bashkin said. “The more international participation, the better.”

So much for optimism. What are the reasons it might not work?

First, there is the agonizing chicken-and-egg dilemma of who makes the first move. Must the Palestinians first end terrorist attacks, or is some concession by the Israelis a precondition?

Saranga makes the Israeli position crystal clear: “Before any negotiation starts, the Palestinians should put an end to terror,” he told NCR.

Lacunza, whose sympathies in the conflict often run to the Palestinians, puts it the other way around. “One can demand a stop to terrorism, but there is no prospect of that if the development of colonies does not stop in the near future,” he said. “You cannot be selective, insisting on fighting terrorism and sweeping everything else under the rug.”

As long as both sides insist the other goes first, it’s difficult to imagine how the process can get underway.

Second, many analysts believe that Arafat still wields effective power on the Palestinian side, and it’s not clear what he intends to do with it.

Finally, there is the perverse logic of events in the Middle East, where new bursts of violence almost always manage to erupt just when a solution seems within reach. Experience has taught most observers to be realists.

Most agree, however, that there is a special urgency to trying to make the road map work, because conditions on the ground suggest this may be the last, best chance for peace for some time.

“In another two, four or seven years, there won’t be the option of partition,” meaning a two-state solution, Bashkin said. “The only option will be a single state, because of the rate at which the settlements are expanding.”

This demographic prospect led Bashkin to make a surprising charge.

“The Zionists are putting an end to the historical role of Zionism in this land, which was to create a Jewish state,” he said, arguing that if the expansion of settlements continues, the only possible outcome will be a bi-ethnic state encompassing both Jews and Arabs.

It is not, Bashkin said, a consummation to be wished.

“It will be very nasty, very bloody,” he said. “This country will go through the experience of South Africa.”

Lacunza warned of wider consequences for the region.

If the road map fails, “the most radical groups within the Palestinian community will put down deeper roots, and make the entire Middle East less secure,” he said.

Most sources agreed that engagement of the United States is central to resolution of the conflict.

“The key to the road map lies in Washington,” Bashkin said.

Shindler said one step the Americans could take would be to ask Sharon to curtail building and expansion of settlements.

“This would send a psychological message to the Palestinians that the Americans are serious, and would place the Americans in line with majority opinion in Israel,” Shindler said.

At the same time, Poupko suggested that at least one sector of American culture should apply equally urgent pressure on the Palestinians.

“Liberal Christians in this country, in the mainline Protestant churches and liberal Catholics, are some of the best friends the Palestinians have, and they enjoy enormous moral capital with them,” Poupko said. “Now is the time for them to put that capital on the line to insist that the Palestinians turn from violence to the negotiating table.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, May 30, 2003

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