The Road from Aqaba

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On June 4, 2003, a high-profile summit at the Jordanian Red Sea resort of Aqaba brought together Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas, under the auspices of George W. Bush, for the formal launch of the latest Middle East peace initiative. Within days of summit’s end, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had entered one of its bloodiest periods in recent years. In view of the nature of the peace initiative and the method of its implementation, the newest “cycle of violence” should hardly have come as a surprise. Like previous “cycles,” the latest attacks and counter-attacks are not self-generating. Rather, they are rooted in maneuvers to maximize political advantage in an already compromised “peace process,” and the lack of political will in Washington to extricate Israelis and Palestinians from the morass.

Off-Key Quartet

On April 30, 2003, the so-called Quartet — consisting of the United States, the UN Secretariat, Russia and the European Union — released its long-awaited “Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” The Quartet, established in mid-2002 as a surrogate for the UN as a whole, had in late 2002 finally agreed on a text that was more accommodating to Israeli and US priorities, such as Palestinian regime change, than to UN resolutions on the conflict. In a further bow to the Bush administration and the Sharon government, the group repeatedly delayed the release of its initiative, pending first Israel’s parliamentary elections, then the formation of a new Israeli government, thereafter the appointment of Abbas as Palestinian prime minister, then the conclusion of the Iraq war and finally the endorsement of Abbas’s cabinet by the Palestinian legislature.

At one level, the road map has much to recommend it when compared to the Oslo accords of the 1990s. Straightforward words and phrases such as “occupation,” “end the occupation that began in 1967,” “Israel freezes all settlement activity…[and] immediately dismantles settlement outposts,” “Palestinian state,” “Israeli leadership issues unequivocal statement affirming its commitment to…an independent, viable sovereign Palestinian state,” and “enhanced international role in monitoring” were effectively banned from the Middle East diplomatic lexicon between September 13, 1993, the official beginning of the Oslo “peace process,” and September 28, 2000, when the second intifada broke out. Such formulations, however, pepper the road map and are even uttered regularly in White House press briefings.

At the same time, the road map resurrects the same formulas that caused Oslo to fail so catastrophically: a total, unilateral and unconditional cessation of Palestinian resistance in the context of continued Israeli military occupation; an obsession with Israeli security and Palestinian confidence as opposed to resolution of the core issues which alone can produce these phenomena; a determination to repress rather than engage the Palestinian opposition; a cavalier disregard for timetables and deadlines; a gradual, sequential and conditional approach to procedural progress instead of consistent and deliberate efforts to forge and implement a permanent settlement on the basis of international legitimacy; lack of meaningful clarity on the shape and size of a permanent settlement; and the absence of an effective international mechanism to enforce implementation.

The road map thus runs the same risk as its predecessors of becoming an interminable and increasingly meaningless process, obstructing rather than facilitating progress towards genuine peace. Indeed, the smart money predicts that the road map will, like Oslo, leave an even more destructive conflict in its wake — with the added complication that the Quartet’s initiative may well be the final opportunity to achieve a two-state solution on the basis of a negotiated partition.

Summit of the Unwilling, Unable and Uncommitted

With the intensification of Israeli siege warfare, military incursions and death squad activity, which together with continued Palestinian attacks throughout the Occupied Territories and Israel threatened to shred the road map, Bush made a “dramatic gesture” to save the collective face of Abbas, Arab leaders who had assisted or declined to obstruct the war in Iraq, beleaguered British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Washington. On June 3, he summoned a number of Washington’s key Arab clients (but neither Syria nor Lebanon) to the Egyptian resort of Sharm al-Sheikh, where they issued the requisite words of praise for US dedication to Middle East peace and condemnations of Palestinian violence. Yet on the key issue of interest to Bush, Arab recognition of Abbas as an alternative leader to Yasser Arafat, they held their ground. Bush held his as well — aside from general support for “a Palestinian state that is free and at peace,” he would only opine that “Israel must deal with the settlements…[and] must make sure there’s a continuous [sic] territory that the Palestinians can call home.” He made no mention of the road map, in keeping with Secretary of State Colin Powell’s characterization of Israel’s refusal to endorse the full text of the document as an unimportant distraction.

The following day Bush met with Abbas and Sharon at Jordanian King Abdallah II’s Aqaba palace. Private discussions, during which Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz is reported to have played an especially hawkish part, do not appear to have produced any significant covert understandings, an impression further strengthened when the main protagonists provided the world with separate statements rather than a collective proclamation.

During the public conclusion of the summit, Abbas repeated Palestinian obligations under the road map — with the notable exception of new Palestinian Authority elections — virtually verbatim. Responding to recent Israeli allegations of Holocaust denial with a clear recognition of “Jewish suffering throughout history,” he was more circumspect when it came to the contemporary suffering of his own people courtesy of those represented to his left and right. Rather, he “condemned” only “terrorism and violence against Israelis wherever they might be” (quickly correcting himself when “Palestinians” began to emerge from his lips), and in reference to Palestinian paramilitary organizations pledged himself “a full partner in the international war against terrorism.” Abbas also assured his listeners that he could and would terminate the “militarized uprising.” In deference to Bush and Sharon, and despite the continuing siege of the elected Palestinian leader in Ramallah, Abbas omitted from his statement any direct or indirect reference to Arafat, despite previously swearing not to travel abroad until Arafat regained his freedom of movement.

Sharon, by contrast, pointedly refused to endorse the road map as presented to him. Instead, he began with a reference to “the land which is the cradle of the Jewish people” (usually denoting the West Bank), repeatedly paid rhetorical obeisance to the “Bush vision” of June 24, 2002 (which Sharon insists is substantively different than the road map) and only once mentioned “the road map as adopted by the Israeli government.” “As adopted by the Israeli government,” the road map contains Israeli objections and reservations which severely mitigate, and sometimes reject, the document’s key provisions. Among the reservations is a demand that the PA give up the right of return for Palestinians made refugees in 1948. Similarly, Sharon refused to endorse the establishment of “an independent, viable and sovereign Palestinian state” as required by the initiative. Rather, he expressed “understanding” for Palestinian “territorial contiguity in the West Bank.”

Sharon did not announce the specified total settlement freeze, stating only that Israel would begin to “remove unauthorized outposts” — an administrative and legal distinction which does not appear in either the road map or the relevant corpus of international law. Here the Israeli leader made it clear that his government continues to consider all other settlements lawful. More generally, Sharon’s repeated references to “fighting terrorism” confirmed, though not explicitly so, that Israel would only reciprocate. If there was to be any progress, the Palestinians would have to move first.

While Bush’s statement was in many respects a breath of fresh air, his commitment “to Israel’s security as a vibrant Jewish state” (but not a “democratic” one) — and the implications of these words for Palestinian refugees (and for that matter Palestinian citizens of Israel) — demonstrated that Israel’s reservations to the road map have for all intents and purposes been incorporated into the document, as far as Washington is concerned. Along with Bush’s desire to establish that his consistent disinterest in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy is a thing of the past, the implicit adoption of Israel’s reservations explains why the remaining members of the Quartet were not invited to partake in the Aqaba festivities.

Storm of Protest

Abbas’s performance at Aqaba raised a storm of protest among Palestinians that had not been seen since the prime minister submitted his initial cabinet nominations in April 2003. In the context of his failure to obtain US assurances that Israel would cease its killings of Palestinian militants and civilians, which rendered further ceasefire negotiations between the PA and the paramilitary organizations all but moot, his excessive deference to Bush and Sharon on the Red Sea coast was widely denounced as violating every conceivable Palestinian red line.

In response, the prime minister, who by international consensus is supposed to replace his president, was reduced to proclaiming that his speech had been fully coordinated with and authorized by Arafat. Never one to miss an opportunity for cutting potential rivals down to size, Arafat “defended” Abbas with the humorous claim that the latter had been prevented from completing what was supposed to be a lengthy speech about Palestinian national rights and, more importantly, had been offered “nothing” by his US and Israeli counterparts.

On June 8, to emphasize that Abbas’s commitments cannot be implemented without the cooperation of the armed factions (and US-induced Israeli reciprocity), the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades of Fatah, the Izz al-Din Qassam Brigades of Hamas, and Islamic Jihad’s Jerusalem Battalions conducted an unprecedented combined attack upon the Erez junction between Israel and the Gaza Strip that left four Israeli soldiers dead. For good measure, Hamas had previously announced its refusal to engage in further dialogue with the Abbas cabinet, while Fatah and Islamic Jihad called for urgent inter-factional consultations to banish the specter of civil strife.

Increasingly cognizant of being left in the lurch by Bush and Sharon, Abbas was also keenly aware that any attempt by security chief Muhammad Dahlan to confront the militants would result in severe bloodletting and probably the destruction of the remnants of the PA as well. He also recognised that while Hamas was prepared to endorse a temporary ceasefire (hudna), it would only deliver its assent to a Palestinian leader untainted by public hostility to the uprising — Arafat, imprisoned Fatah West Bank Secretary-General Marwan Barghouti or a prominent Arab mediator like Egyptian Director of Intelligence Omar Suleiman. (According to the Palestinian daily al-Ayyam, Barghouti did in fact reach a ceasefire deal with exiled Hamas politburo member Khalid Mashaal prior to the Aqaba summit.) Abbas called upon the good offices of Suleiman to salvage what remained of the road map and his own tenure. Reports on June 10 that Hamas was reconsidering its rejection of a ceasefire likely revealed its calculus that the road map would expire of its own accord, leaving the PA, and specifically the current represented by Abbas, to pay the the political price. At any rate, while Abbas’s move placated the militants, it fell entirely afoul of Sharon.

ROAD MAP ON LIFE SUPPORT

Since assuming office in March 2001, Sharon has consistently obstructed and ultimately sabotaged every attempt to establish a political process. He has done this not because he is opposed to a political agreement in principle, but because he wants to ensure that the Palestinians are first administered an unambiguous military defeat, as a prelude to accepting Israel’s restrictive political conditions. The prospect of a genuine Palestinian civil war is, from Sharon’s perspective, an acceptable alternative.

Israel’s civilian and military leadership is, however, not prepared to countenance a negotiated Palestinian ceasefire that leaves the paramilitary organizations and their morale intact, not even if this serves as a prelude to their peaceful disarmament as Abbas hopes to achieve, and especially not if it requires Israeli (and US) cooperation, such as a halt to assassinations and lifting the siege on Arafat. This imperative, rather than a rare opportunity to kill an allegedly elusive Hamas leader constantly in the public eye, or an emerging schism between Likud and the settler movements, primarily explains the timing of Israel’s failed attempt to assassinate Hamas political leader Abd al-Aziz Rantisi in Gaza City on June 10. The suggestion that Sharon was not fully aware of the consequences, and therefore was not actively seeking a qualitative escalation of the conflict, is simply inconceivable. It is equally important to note that the attack on Rantisi, which every observer knew would almost instantaneously blow the road map out of the water, in no way violates the letter of the Quartet’s document.

During the next two days, an orgy of killing by Palestinian militants and Israeli helicopter gunships left some 50 dead — almost all of them civilians — and hundreds wounded. Fueling the fire with carefully chosen high-octane pronouncements, Sharon on June 11 vowed that Israel would further escalate its military offensive until Hamas as an organization and other armed factions were “eradicated.” Hamas responded with statements that the Israeli leader was a “wanted terrorist” who would be eliminated, and that foreigners should leave the Jewish state because each of its residents had become a legitimate target.

Israel also sharpened its campaign of vilification against Abbas and his cabinet, with Sharon referring to the PA as “crybabies” who need to be assisted by Israeli assassinations until “they grow their feathers.” The characteristically selective condemnations emanating from Powell and other US officials were accompanied by predictable demands that Abbas “do more to fight terror.” While Washington’s rebukes of Israel for the strike on Rantisi struck American commentators as strongly worded, few in Israel failed to note that they were extraordinarily mild, followed by unambiguous statements of support for Israel’s campaign against Hamas and therefore inconsequential. Why Abbas yet again succumbed to the delusion that he could dispense with ironclad guarantees of Israeli reciprocity on the assumption that Washington would compel Sharon to allow him to succeed remains the unanswered question of this entire fiasco.

With the road map and Abbas’s cabinet effectively on life support, and reports suggesting that Palestinian ministers would begin submitting their resignations if rapid progress is not forthcoming, on June 12 Powell announced that he would convene the Quartet in Aqaba on June 22 to salvage its enterprise. Yet he provided no indication that Washington intended to approach the issue any differently than it did earlier this month. While skepticism about the road map has been significant from the outset, few had expected that it would disintegrate so quickly, or that Washington would do so little to save it from what looks to be certain demise.

Mouin Rabbani is a Middle East analyst currently residing in Amman, Jordan. Above article first appeared in Middle East Report Online and republished here with permission.

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