Slippery slopes and uphill battles

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The Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) government and the roadmap are in effect Siamese twins; they must be analyzed and monitored together, or not at all. It was not a coincidence that the official establishment of a Palestinian cabinet headed by Abu Mazen was followed a day later by the official presentation of the roadmap. The two are part of the same process that has emerged from the Israeli-Palestinian war, the Iraq war, and the evolution of American policy.

Two corollaries follow. First, from the Israeli standpoint, in the foreseeable future there will not be a better opportunity to work our way out of the current conflict and at least stabilize the situation. If Abu Mazen–who so dramatically rejects the path of violence–fails, or Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat successfully intervenes to spoil the process, or the roadmap fails, or the United States loses interest, there is no alternative peace process waiting in the wings. If we deal with the unfortunate fact that Arafat still retains too much control, particularly over security organizations, by turning down this process or demanding a different prime minister or even capturing and exiling Arafat–this will not improve our chances for ending this conflict, with its disastrous economic, human and political consequences for both sides, but rather worsen them. So we all have to work with what we’ve got, even as the pressures on Arafat–internally, from genuine reformers, and e! xternally, from the Quartet–must continue.

Secondly, in view of the antithetical positions held by Abu Mazen and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon regarding final status issues such as Jerusalem and the size and borders of a Palestinian state, the roadmap as constituted is not likely to generate a two state solution within the next two years. Hence the very best we can do at this point is a successful phase I, the phase of stabilization, security and reform. This is still preferable by far, for both sides, to the current status quo of warfare. It will almost certainly generate a new and positive dynamic that will affect Israeli as well as Palestinian internal politics.

Assuming that all three sides–the PLO/PA, Israel and the Bush administration–understand and accept the constraints and limitations of this process and the crucial link between Abu Mazen’s fortunes and the future of the roadmap, there remain three key issues for immediate resolution.

One is Israel’s demand for amendments to the roadmap. The overall thrust of Sharon’s attempts to change the roadmap’s parallel process into a sequential one, to avoid restoring a PLO presence to East Jerusalem, to “legalize” settlement outposts, and to elicit Palestinian renunciation of the right of return from the outset, is that Sharon is simply looking for excuses to avoid getting onto the slippery slope of the roadmap. Here the US must be firm. The only truly legitimate Israeli demand at this point is that the Palestinian effort to end the violence be sincere, and be seen to be working.

The Bush administration should continue to tell Sharon to stop quibbling and to dismantle all 70 outposts established on his watch over the past two years in accordance with phase I–if only for Israel’s own good, to avoid the slippery slope of “South Africanization” of the conflict. The best way it can deal with Israel’s very understandable demand that the Palestinians renounce the right of return if they want Israel to recognize Palestinian statehood is to amend the roadmap by eliminating phase II with its highly problematic “provisional” Palestinian state. This would relegate all final status issues to what is currently phase III, which in any case will be hard to complete under the current leaders. To sacrifice the entire process before it begins due to Israel’s insistence on a final status issue–legitimate and vital on its own merits–is folly.

But regarding an end to violence, the administration should make clear to Abu Mazen’s government that it must take control over all Palestinian security organizations, and that a mere hudna or ceasefire with Fateh’s own al-Aqsa Brigades, along with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, will not suffice. These organizations must be disarmed and their terrorist infrastructures dismantled. Israelis must be convinced that the existential threat posed by the suicide bombings is ending, not merely being frozen for the interim. They will feel very little sympathy if and when confronted with the argument that Palestinian solidarity is ultimately more important than the real security needs not only of Israel, but of Palestinians as well.

For months I have been writing that there is no peace process because none of the three principals–Bush, Sharon, Arafat–has a realistic strategy for peace. The advent of the roadmap and of the Abu Mazen government signals that, just conceivably, in a best case scenario, we are witnessing the beginning of change within this triangle of doom and frustration.

It will be an uphill battle.

Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”

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