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After the 'Road Map'

September 17, 2004



What Ariel Sharon has been indicating for months is now stated Israeli policy: The US-drawn "road map" to a Palestinian state is locked in the glove compartment - along with other failed peace plans.

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In an interview this week with the Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot, the Israeli prime minister explicitly said he is not using the plan introduced by George Bush in 2003. He confirmed what has been implicitly understood: that Israel will withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements, but stay in the rest of the West Bank indefinitely.

So, no negotiated deal with the Palestinians, no lead role for Washington as the go-between, and just half a loaf of Palestinian autonomy for the foreseeable future.

To be fair, the road map never got very far. Neither side lived up to its most basic obligations. In a way, it's a relief to have it out in the open: The Sharon plan is operative now.

But this development sadly underscores Washington's relinquishment of its position as honest broker in the peace process.

From the very beginning, this White House distanced itself from Bill Clinton's intense engagement in this conflict. In Bush's view, his predecessor became entangled in negotiations, staking too much of his presidency on a problem whose solution appeared out of reach, given the players and politics on both sides.

That position was understandable, but not advisable. For while the particular goal of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal seems elusive, handing the keys to Mr. Sharon hurts America's broader goals in the Middle East: fighting extremist Islamic terrorists, and spreading democracy.

By allowing Sharon to take the wheel behind the Palestinian issue, US credibility takes yet another beating. How can reformers in the Middle East push US-backed democracy to their publics when Washington looks to have abandoned the Palestinians?

The Bush vision of democracy dominos in the Middle East is undermined by the administration's one-sided stance on the very issue Arabs care most about.

A further irony is that if Israel's unilateral pullout is to occur smoothly and without violence, it will still require Palestinian involvement. So, obviously, will the setting up of a stable and effective government in Gaza, and the securing of its borders.

Who will act as the cartographer for this mini road-map? And, in the longer term, who will keep the pressure on for a full resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Egypt is stepping up to the plate, and the Europeans could become more involved. But for now, the Bush administration, in yielding to Sharon, has bowed out. That's regrettable.

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