Many analysts say Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is heading to Washington next week with the Middle East peace road map exactly where he wants it: waylaid at the illegal settler outposts of the West Bank.
The several dozen outposts established by zealous settlers without cabinet approval and with little Israeli public support should be "immediately" emptied, according to the road map drawn up by the US, the European Union, Russian and the United Nations with the stated goal of achieving peace through the establishment of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Israel and the Palestinian areas over the weekend, ostensibly to spur momentum for the blueprint, which calls in its first phase for a Palestinian halt to violence and security crackdown and an Israeli freeze on Jewish settlements. But Mr. Powell was forced to admit that he had made little progress on the outposts issue, telling journalists it would be discussed further during this week and during Mr. Sharon's visit to the US.
Powell's visit was widely seen as unsuccessful. Nachum Barnea, a columnist for Yediot Ahronot, wrote that "Powell arrived with the feeling that the American victory in Iraq changed the face of the Middle East. He found, however, how little things have actually changed."
Mr. Barnea wrote that Powell simply could not get past Sharon's concern that Israel could be duped by the Palestinians. "Israel is worried about being dragged into negotiations under fire. Assume the Palestinian government makes a certain effort to fight terrorism and Israel sits down with them. Meanwhile, the terrorism increases again. That would mean Sharon is doing something he has sworn to the public he will never do."
The lack of discussion of outposts is significant because whether the United States admits it or not, Sharon is setting the pace of the diplomatic agenda, analysts say. Washington, they add, has now effectively entered into negotiations with Israel over the text of the road map, without insisting Sharon spell out clearly whether Israel accepts it, as the Palestinians have.
"The strategy of Sharon is to lead the road map to a funeral without mentioning the date of the funeral, to have it die a gradual death," says Wadie Abu Nassar, a Haifa-based political analyst. "He is very happy with the current status quo, he controls everything, the Palestinians are weak, he has no domestic opposition and he still thinks the Palestinians can be weakened by force and that they will have to accept Israeli demands."
And Sharon is confident he can get away with stonewalling, says Mr. Abu Nasser. "Sharon is waiting until October, until election season. Until then we can expect a combination of gestures and provocations from him. He will use the outposts, prisoners, other issues, as gesture. He has read the American map, and he knows that since Sept. 11, the thinking is more right-wing, which means more pro-Israel and more pro-Israeli right-wing."
In the West Bank on Sunday, Palestinian gunmen killed an Israeli motorist. Israeli troops killed three Palestinians in the Gaza Strip on Sunday and sealed the territory. At the same time, Israel released a total of 140 Palestinians from army and civilian prisons, but Palestinian officials say they were all within 12 days of completing their sentences. Israel also resumed security contacts with Palestinian officials over the weekend.
During Powell's visit, Sharon refrained from using the phrase "road map," saying instead that "Israel sincerely wishes to advance President Bush's June 24 speech." The speech last year calls for a Palestinian state, but not a viable one, and it lacks the timetable and reciprocity built into the road map.
Sharon has repeatedly insisted the Bush speech is not only in accordance with, but also a basis for, his own ideas, as outlined in a speech he gave in February. That is known as the "Herzliya address" and it is conceptually at loggerheads with the road map in that it demands very little from Israel, and comes very late in process. Analysts believe the address is the clearest outline of Sharon's views on how to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians.
According to the Herzliya speech, the first stage of peacemaking must unilaterally be "a complete cessation of terrorism" and "a change of Palestinian administration." Sharon specifies that there must be no timetable built into the peacemaking plans "since this will generate tremendous pressure upon Israel each time a deadline approaches."
In what is billed as a concession, Sharon says Israel will not reoccupy Palestinian areas it relinquished in the Oslo Agreement.
There is no settlement freeze in the Herzliya address and no pathway toward discussing the final status issues of the dispute as defined in the Oslo Agreement: Jewish settlements, refugees, Jerusalem, water. It also specifies that "easing of military pressure" by Israel and concessions to make life easier for Palestinians can only take place after the "cessation of terrorism" and "change in administration."
In a second stage, Israel would be ready to allow a Palestinian state with provisional borders in parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with Israel controlling all crossings into and from the state and its airspace.
"Sharon's agenda is the Herzliya speech and he is arguing that it is a more accurate interpretation of what Bush thinks than the road map," says Akiva Eldar, a columnist for Ha'aretz.
Still, Powell told reporters he had found some give in Sharon's position. In the past, the Israeli leader insisted to him there had to be complete calm on the Palestinian side before there could be any progress. But now, Powell said, "I haven't heard the Israelis talk of total calm. They are saying they are looking for a lot of effort and intent" by the new Palestinian government.