US clout brings Mideast turning point

The Israeli Cabinet voted 12-to-7 to approve an international plan that would lead to a Palestinian state.

Israel's qualified acceptance of a US-backed plan to establish a Palestinian state offers the most significant boost to peace prospects in 32 months of conflict.

Despite cynicism on both sides and Israeli attempts to add conditions, the road map could be a turning point. It faces challenges that will probably take more time to overcome than its ambitious three-year schedule allows. While the conflict's seemingly intractable nature has deflated other peace attempts, the plan has in its favor a US leader with unprecedented power in the region, influence that could help it succeed.

"We're at a point when the US has unusual clout in the Middle East in general and in Israel in particular," says Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. "Now, for the first time in two years of this administration, we have a president who seems ready to commit his energies and prestige to stabilize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That is a major event."

The 12-to-7 cabinet vote approving the road map is being described as historic, as it is the first time an Israeli government has officially accepted that Palestinians should have a state. It is all the more significant for being passed by the right-wing government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who acknowledged, after the vote Sunday, that "this was not a happy decision."

Ordinary Israelis weren't quite so pessimistic. The Israeli stock market leapt seven percent, the third-highest jump in 10 years. A newspaper poll showed that 56 percent of Israelis thought approving the road map was the right thing to do, even though 62 percent believed Mr. Sharon had done so only because of American pressure.

The prime minister admitted as much, Israeli newspapers reported, telling his Cabinet, "If we reject the road map, it could lead to a confrontation with the Americans."

And the Americans, under President George Bush, are in a unique position to shape this region. The victory in Iraq gives the US immense regional influence, while its ability to get Israeli agreement on the road map enhances its standing in the Arab world.

A vulnerable economy

Israel also needs the US as never before. Its economy is in tatters, making Israel even more reliant on US aid. Last year, Sharon requested an extra $10 billion in aid beyond the $2.7 billion the US provides Israel annually.

Sharon has often boasted that ties between two countries have never been closer. They have also never been more necessary. Without the US, Israel - with its rightwing government and aggressive re-occupation of the Palestinian territories - would be deeply isolated internationally. Now, building on the developing momentum, Mr. Bush wants to host a summit that would bring Israelis and Palestinians together with Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in the next few weeks.

Some Israeli analysts speculate that Bush's Christianity gives him a sense of mission about this conflict. Writing in Ma'ariv newspaper, analyst Ben Caspit notes that Bush is "full of messianic motivation and [has] substantial regional back-wind. Will the Middle Eastern quagmire swallow him up too?" asks Mr. Caspit. "Let's hope not."

US determination to see the road map through will certainly be tested. The peace plan, crafted with the United Nations, European Union and Russia, sets out three stages over three years, a more aggressive approach than that used in the failed Oslo peace process.

For months, Israel waged a diplomatic battle to alter the road map. Those efforts resulted in a US pledge last week to address Israel's 14 objections. The document, however, remained unchanged and has fierce opponents within the government.

'Yes' - with conditions

That is reflected in the Cabinet statement, which accepts "the steps set out in the road map" as opposed to simply accepting the plan.

The wording allows Israel to continue insisting that progress be sequential and not simultaneous. In fact, the road map clearly makes requirements simultaneous. "In each phase, the parties are expected to perform their obligations in parallel," it states.

Palestinians, who officially accepted the road map May 11, complain about Israeli attempts to alter the plan.

"We are already fulfilling our mission," says Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, director of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, listing Palestinian obligations. "We have a new prime minister, we are unifying our security forces, we are preparing for elections."

Timing will continue to be the subject of intense bickering. Sharon demands that Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas first root out militant groups like Hamas before Israel takes any action. Indeed, government officials told Israeli media Monday that the road map's timetable will have to be adjusted from months to years, saying that it will take that long to wipe out militants and establish a state.

Alongside this wrangling, there will be other disruptions. Settler groups, which oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, are planning to hold demonstrations against the road map.

And Israeli security services say they expect increased attempts to attack Israelis as Palestinian militants try to scuttle political developments. In the meantime, and despite complaints on both sides, political negotiations continue with Sharon and Mr. Abbas slated to meet this week to discuss a cease-fire and security arrangements in the Palestinian territories.

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 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 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, go to www.csmonitor.com/roadmap

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