As U.S. President George W. Bush prepares to meet with the Palestinian and Israeli prime ministers later this week and early next week, his peacemaking efforts-launched in April 2003 with the introduction of the road map-have been dealt a strong blow by the Israeli Knesset. On 14 July 2003, the Israeli parliament ratified draft legislation claiming the West Bank and Gaza Strip were not territories occupied by Israel.
The dilemma which Bush will find himself in is that the legislation was introduced by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Likud Party. According to media reports, 17 Likud members including Sharon’s son, Omri voted in favor of the legislation. This is the same party which the United States expects to implement the road map and prepare the Israeli public for the inevitability of an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip by 2005. The message that the Israeli Knesset is sending out with this legislation is that it is not ready to end its occupation of the Palestinian territories and by not ending the occupation of the land, the Knesset is saying that it is not morally concerned with subjugating over 3 million Palestinians to a cruel military occupation.
Although non-binding, the legislation raises doubts over Israel’s credibility as a government and Sharon’s credibility as a man who will honor commitments. What is alarming about this move is that it comes at a time when the United States is persuading the Israelis and Palestinians to carry out “confidence-building measures” that would create a more conducive atmosphere for pushing the road map forward. Instead, the Israeli Knesset has created another barrier to the settlement of this conflict.
Such a decision by Israel may not come as a surprise to the Palestinians who have become accustomed to expecting the worse from Israel. What is surprising to the Palestinians is that the United States has remained silent. The inaction by the United States raises doubts over the United States’ and Bush’s credibility. Since taking office, the Bush administration has stood firmly by Sharon and his government, excusing every destructive action taken by the Israeli military. Now, after the Palestinians have accepted the U.S-backed road map, fulfilled most of their first phase obligations, they hear a deafening silence from the White House and State Department regarding the Knesset vote.
To keep the Palestinians on board with the road map, Bush will have to clarify how the road map will deliver freedom and a Palestinian state. Both these crucial elements require an end to Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. How does Bush expect to deliver on his promise when there is a government in Israel that does not even acknowledge that they are an occupying power? Palestinians cannot be expected to trust the United States and its road map when the United States stands deaf and blind to Israel’s actions. History has proven that any peace process that does not bring an end to the occupation will fail.
In case the Israeli Knesset and prime minister are confused regarding the requirements of the road map, it is the Bush administration’s duty to clarify the provisions of the plan. Bush will have that opportunity next week when he sits down with Sharon. And in case the Bush administration has forgotten the essential requirement for peace, its quite simple, an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The implementation of the road map requires an Israeli military withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the dismantling of military checkpoints that suffocate Palestinian villages, towns, and refugee camps and deny Palestinians access to civil services such as health and education. The lifting of the military siege that has strangled the Palestinian economy creating a humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian territories.
The United States, both the government and the people, have a moral and political responsibility regarding the Middle East conflict. Politically, the government must support the vision its president has set out. Morally, the American people should not stand by and watch as the Palestinians, who have placed their trust in the United States, fall deeper into despair as their basic human rights of freedom and security are abused.
The root causes of the decades-old conflict are the occupation and the refugees. Only by ending the occupation will this conflict come to a conclusion. As long as Israel refuses to see itself as an occupier of a land and a people, resistance to the occupation will continue.
Samar Assad is the Publications Manager of the Palestine Center and a regular contributor to Media Monitors Network (MMN).