Would Israel get The Road, and Palestinians The Map?


Last week, Egyptians were telling me that they’re giving the American-backed “Road Map for Peace” only a 30% chance of success; but that’s significantly up from only 10% a week earlier.

Egyptians summarize the situation through a political cartoon character, who says the Americans are of course “serious” about implementing the road map — they’re giving the Israelis the road, and the Palestinians the map!

That’s an ironic way of saying that Egyptians, along with many others in the Arab world and Europe, have little faith in America’s much-vaunted impartiality: there may be still too much bias in Washington to broker a genuine peace.

America’s overwhelming support for Israel comes from both the powerful Jewish lobby in Washington, which tends to the political right, and from the equally powerful American Christian Zionists, who are relentlessly pressuring both the Bush administration and Israeli government not to give up one inch of the Occupied Territories. They would like to see Israel cling to the West Bank and Gaza Strip until the last Jew (or close to it) dies defending them. Only this way, they reason — on very dubious theological grounds — can the second coming of Christ be hastened.

These American Christians, who belong largely to evangelical Protestant sects, are among the most outspoken opponents of the Road Map for Peace, yet it seems that no one is daring to call them extremists, obstacles to peace, or for that matter, enemies of peace. Yet they are just that, in nearly everything they say and do.

Among their leaders, Revs. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have frequently criticized George W. Bush’s belated, but welcome vision of an autonomous Palestinian state. There are now grounds for concern that the President, a born-again Protestant, could be influenced to withdraw his support of the road map under political and theological pressure from the Christian far right.

One of these influential anti-Palestine groups, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, raised $20 million (U.S.) last year to support Israel’s armed Jewish settlers. And late in June, a group representing a congregation from Denver visited the Jewish settlement of Ariel (named for Ariel Sharon) to plant a blessed seedling for the 18,000 Jews living there. “Pressuring Israel to do something contrary to God’s will is very dangerous,” said the wife of the Denver congregation’s pastor. “We’re not anti-Palestinian,” explained another. “They have a place too, just not here.”

Can the road map have any chance of success under such warped conditions? The answer is a qualified yes. There is one person who can make or break this last-ditch bid for permanent accord between two exhausted, but unequally matched peoples — and he is none other than Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon.

A three-month ceasefire has just been negotiated between Israelis and Palestinians, with both sides appearing keen to achieve tangible results. The Israelis have already begun their withdrawal form Gaza and some West Bank areas they have occupied since the start of the Second Intifada. In addition, there are promises to release thousands of Palestinian detainees from Israeli jails and end the siege of Yasser Arafat’s battered compound in Ramallah. This hopeful detente will allow the Palestinians, with the help of the international community, to rebuild their PNA (Palestinian National Authority) infrastructure from the ground up after two-and-a-half years of almost daily attack.

However, if combined American and Israeli pressure convinces Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, and his security minister Mohamed Dahlan, to completely “dismantle” Palestinian factions — including Hamas and Islamic Jihad — before any final settlement, the road map could be doomed to failure.

Israel views any Palestinian ceasefire as simply a first step in its self-defined “true war against terror.” But should the PNA not join the “true war” on Israel’s terms, Sharon has signaled that Israel will act unilaterally within Palestinian areas, road map or no road map. Most Palestinians still believe that Israel is not interested in a Palestinian state, but wants instead to incite a Palestinian civil war to destroy the fledgling state from within.

“We really have to get to the point… where the only ones with guns and military force in any nation have to be the government,” U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas agrees in general, but not with Powell’s timing. Without an internationally recognized independent Palestinian state, any temporary ceasefire will be just that. The primary goal then must be to persuade Israel to deliver on its part of the road map.

Among the biggest stumbling blocks to Israel’s fulfillment of peace obligations are the armed and intransigent Jewish settlers, more than 200,000 strong. Any one of them could irreparably sabotage the ceasefire by killing even one Palestinian. Similarly, any single Palestinian, unhappy with the ceasefire and frustrated by the slow progress toward Palestinian statehood, could wreak equal havoc. If either scenario materializes and is answered by a resumption and escalation of violence, the Bush road map will fail miserably.

Most Palestinian analysts are giving credit to Prime Minister Abbas for arriving at the current ceasefire agreement in record time. They also praise him for delaying his trip to Washington until Israel ends its ongoing siege of Yasser Arafat’s headquarters. They also believe that this latest truce has demonstrated the growing maturity of the Palestinian resistance, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both of which are transforming from shadowy paramilitary movements into the foundation for future legitimate political parities.

Summer gets extremely hot in the Middle East. The next three months may witness a welcome breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — or it could tragically disintegrate into just another season full of hot air, and bullets.

Mohamed Elmasry is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo and national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.