Road Map or Dead End?

Chilean folksinger Victor Jara once sang about "working at the beginning of a story without knowing the end." It aptly describes the proposed "Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict"—the "road map" to peace—recently presented to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and newly approved Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

Last summer, President Bush delivered a major speech on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, supporting the creation of a Palestinian state preconditioned on a change in Palestinian leadership. Along with the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations—the "Quartet"—it resulted in the development of the road map in September 2002.

Its formal presentation was derailed by the U.S. administration's focus on the war with Iraq, until mid-March when Bush—under pressure from British Prime Minister Tony Blair—reluctantly pledged to release and support the plan.

The road map outlines a series of reciprocal steps to be taken by both Israel and the Palestinians, with the promise of "an independent, democratic, and viable Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace and security with Israel" by 2005. It proposes three phases, with completion of each leading to the next.

In the first—and most important—phase, the Palestinians are to "immediately undertake an unconditional cessation of violence," while Israel is to take "all necessary steps" to "normalize Palestinian life," including withdrawing from all territory occupied since September 2000 and freezing all settlement activity. These simultaneous actions would then lead to the next steps toward the promise of a Palestinian state. The problem is that the specifics of that promise are left to be determined. Difficult questions of the final borders of the two states, the status of Jerusalem, and the return of Palestinian refugees are not addressed, but are to be negotiated later.

Already, hardened positions on those ultimate issues are blocking the beginning steps. A leading spokesperson for the Israeli settlement lobby calls it "a disaster for Israel." The head of the militant Islamist group Hamas says it "aims to assure security for Israel at the expense of the security of our people." And it is no secret that the neo-conservative forces that control the Bush administration's foreign policy are opposed. Some analysts and pundits are already proclaiming it a dead end rather than a road map.

YET THERE ARE several new elements that offer some hope. The explicit pledge by the Quartet to support a two-state solution is new. And perhaps most important, it is an international commitment to the essential first steps: the need to end the cycle of violence, of Palestinian terrorist bombings and Israeli reprisals; and the need for Israel to end settlements and its occupation of Palestinian territory. Without those steps, no progress will ever be made toward a permanent settlement with a sovereign Palestinian state and a secure Israel.

The major weakness of the road map, however, is that it contains no compliance or enforcement mechanism. It relies solely on both sides taking the necessary actions. For it to succeed, the Quartet—most important, President Bush and his administration—will have to apply and maintain pressure on both sides, especially Israel.

Anglican Bishop Riah Abu El-Assal of Jerusalem, in a message to the church, wrote, "What we need is not another feel-good plan, but a serious effort on the part of all players to seek peace and justice for all people who live in this land—Christian, Muslim, and Jew alike. This will require making political sacrifices." The question is whether all of those involved will make those sacrifices. Extremists on both sides must realize that the land God promised to the descendants of Abraham belongs to them both and that each dream of expelling the other must be given up. Until then, we are still stuck at the beginning of the story.

Duane Shank is issues and policy adviser for Sojourners.

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