Roadblocks on the road map to Middle East peace

After months of inaction, US determination to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems renewed.

US envoy William Burns met Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas Monday in advance of a visit here next week by Secretary of State Colin Powell. Mr. Burns met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon Sunday. The visits are part of a renewed push to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the road map.

An internationally backed plan, the road map is designed to establish a Palestinian state by 2005.

But the issues that stymied talks during the Oslo peace process in the early '90s remain unresolved and must be tackled anew. The difference now is that whatever fragile trust existed before conflict erupted in September 2000 has been shattered.

Indeed, Israelis and Palestinians, cynical after Oslo's failure, are pessimistic about the plan's chances. The issues they cite - including settlements, and questions about each other's intentions and US commitment - reveal a profound mutual distrust. The suspicions themselves have become another stumbling block. Here is a look at some of the major challenges facing the road map.

Mutual suspicion

Neither side believes the other is ready and willing to honor the letter or spirit of the road map. Many Israelis point to the continued presence of leader Yasser Arafat as proof that Palestinian political reform has not been genuine. And they predict Palestinians will continue to use violence in defiance of Israeli and US insistence that negotiations cannot begin unless militants are disarmed.

"There is absolutely no precedent in the history of the Palestinian political structure to disarm any group," says Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University outside Tel Aviv. "The concept of armed struggle and use of violence to reach goals is so deeply engrained."

Palestinians say that Israel, under Mr. Sharon, has no real intention of allowing the creation of a viable state. They point to Sharon's lifelong support for Israeli settlements, his hostility to a Palestinian state, and the limits he would impose on one.

Any Palestinian state would be completely demilitarized, and Israel would control all entries and exits and command its airspace, Sharon said in a December 2002 speech.

This week, Palestinians are questioning Sharon's silence since the road map was presented. While Mr. Abbas has called for immediate implementation of the road map, Sharon has issued a statement saying he received the document "for the purpose of formulating comments on the wording."

"This Israeli government is coming from an ideology and political strategy that is completely incompatible with basic notions on which this road map is built," says Palestinian Labor Minister Ghassan Khatib.

Uncertainty about US commitment

Many Palestinians are skeptical about the US commitment to helping them establish a state. European diplomats in Washington quietly echo their concerns.

Palestinians say the US is acting solely out of concern for its ambitions in Iraq. They say the US wants to be seen acting on a Middle Eastern flash point to defuse Arab anger about Iraq.

Skeptics also point to US domestic politics. With a national election around the corner in 2004, they don't believe President Bush would alienate the powerful pro-Israeli lobby by pushing Israel to make room for a Palestinian state.

There are "very good reasons to be skeptical about President Bush's determination to follow through," says Henry Siegman, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "But I believe that the president - despite elections - has the ability to do this without paying a price. The American Jewish community wants to see the issue resolved and will not punish him for taking a strong stand that the road map must go forward. It's absolutely doable from a domestic point of view," says Mr. Siegman. "But I don't know if that view is shared by the people who run his [election] campaign."

Without US involvement, Palestinians say there is little hope. "Unless the US is really going to play the role of the neutral and fair arbiter, or at least allow the quartet [of powers that back the plan] to play such a role, Israel will simply have no incentive to abide by its obligations," says a Palestinian official who asked not to be named.

Settlements

Israeli construction in the occupied territories, land on which Palestinians hope to establish a state, is a major impediment to peace. The settlements are illegal under international law, as the fourth Geneva Convention forbids building on occupied land. The Israeli government's stance is that the land is not occupied as it was not a sovereign territory in 1967.

In the first of three phases, the road map requires Israel to immediately dismantle outposts - the small sites settlers use to expand their borders or establish a new community - built since March 2001.

The plan also requires Israel to freeze all settlement activity, including natural growth, but there is no reference to timing and no explicit reference to evacuating the settlements.

Similar requests have been made in the past. Despite agreements to curb construction during the Oslo peace process, the number of settlements outside East Jerusalem grew by 62 percent and their populations doubled since 1992. Most settlers live in large blocks that cut Palestinian cities off from one another and hem them in, blocking their expansion. The unchecked building helped drive Palestinian anger and derail Oslo.

While Palestinians say the settlement demands are self-explanatory, Israel questions the definitions of "natural growth," "outpost" and even "settlement," saying communities in the West Bank that ring Jerusalem can't be included.

Even as discussions begin, groups that monitor Israeli construction activity in the West Bank say the pace of building has been so rapid under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that it could prevent Palestinians from forming a physically united state.

"The scale of the ... effort is startling," writes Philip Wilcox of the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington, describing recent construction around Jerusalem. "It includes roads, trenches, walls, tunnels, and settlements designed to preclude a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, a bottom-line element for any peace deal."

Conservative Israelis don't see settlements as an impediment. "There's potential for a US-Israel disagreement over what settlement freeze actually means, whether it actually includes settlements around Jerusalem, and what natural growth is, but the close relationship between Sharon and Bush will overcome any difficulties about that," says Mr. Steinberg of Bar Ilan University. He adds: "It will be quite amazing if we get to that stage."

Refugees

The road map leaves substantive discussion of two other thorny issues - Jerusalem and the right of return - until its third and final phase.

The right of return refers to United Nations Resolution 194, which says that Palestinians who fled their homes in what is now Israel in 1948 should be allowed to return or receive compensation.

If Palestinians see Israel's settlement policy as an attempt to stymie or destroy their hopes of a state, Israelis fear that Palestinian insistence on the right of return is code for Israel's destruction. If refugees or their descendants were allowed to return, Israelis would be a minority in their own state and it would cease to exist as a democratic Jewish state.

Jerusalem

A medieval writer described Jerusalem as a "golden bowl filled with scorpions." The city, hewed from rose-colored stone, takes on a burnished glow at dusk and still inspires bitter enmities. Both Israelis and Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their capital.

Until 1967, Jordan controlled Arab East Jerusalem and the walled Old City. Israel seized these areas in the Six Day War and refused UN demands to withdraw. Today, Israel insists Jerusalem is its "eternal, undivided capital," yet Israelis rarely venture into Jerusalem's eastern half, which is conspicuously less well maintained by city officials than its Jewish western half.

Israel's continued construction efforts, along with land confiscation and demolitions, is cutting East Jerusalem off from the rest of the West Bank, making it physically difficult for East Jerusalem to become the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Holy sites

The plan envisions discussion of holy sites by 2005, but mentions them only in reference to Jerusalem. It states that a resolution on the city must take "into account the political and religious concerns of both sides, and protect the religious interest of Jews, Christians and Muslims worldwide."

That last word signals the difficulty in negotiating the status of holy sites. No Palestinian leader can act independently to decide the fate of sites holy to Muslims without consulting others, particularly Saudi Arabia, where most of Islam's holy sites reside, and Jordan.

The Jordanians play a part in the administration of the Noble Sanctuary, a hilltop compound known to Jews as the Temple Mount.

The Sanctuary was built on the ruins of the Jewish Temple razed by Romans in AD 70, and the exposed Western Wall of the Temple is Judaism's holiest site. Muslims believe Muhammad ascended to heaven from the spot marked by the gold-capped Dome of the Rock.

The vulnerability of holy sites was evident at the beginning of the conflict when Palestinians in Nablus burned and vandalized Joseph's Tomb, where Jews believe Jacob's son was laid to rest.

The sites' potential for igniting passions was evident in 1994, when a Jewish settler killed 29 Muslims as they prayed at a Hebron shrine where Abraham, patriarch to Muslims, Jews, and Christians, is thought to be buried. Hate and anger continue to roil Hebron, home to 140,000 Palestinians and some 500 settlers, to this day.

The road map: an overview

Sponsored by the "quartet" (US, the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia), the road map is meant to achieve a "final, comprehensive settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by 2005."

Phase 1: End of violence

Palestinian leaders implement an unconditional official cease-fire and acknowledge Israel's right to exist in peace. The Palestinian Authority security force is reorganized and confronts those engaged in violent attacks on Israelis. Palestinian forces reestablish cooperation with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Steps are taken to establish a strong parliamentary democracy with genuine separation of powers.

Israel affirms commitment to a viable sovereign Palestinian state and calls for the end of violence against Palestinians. Israel takes no actions undermining trust, including deportations, attacks on civilians, or house demolitions. Settlement outposts erected since March 2001 are dismantled, and settlement activity is frozen. IDF withdraws from areas occupied since Sept. 28, 2000. Restrictions on Palestinian movement are eased.

Phase 2: Transition to separate states

Starts after "free, open, and fair" Palestinian elections and ends with possible creation of an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders.

Phase 3: Permanent status agreement

Talks convened by the quartet lead to a permanent-status resolution in 2005. It would include final decisions on borders, Jerusalem, refugees, and settlements.

• For full text of the road map, visit www.csmonitor.com/roadmap

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