Powell, Sharon, and Abbas

Powell, Sharon, and Abbas

Soon after the release of the Roadmap, Secretary of State Powell went to the Middle East in the first visit for a senior u.S. official in nearly a year and called on both sides to take quick steps for conciliatory action rather than getting bogged down in arguing about the details of the Roadmap. Powell suggested that movement was more critical than concern about the perfection of the Roadmap and its symmetry with the Bush speech. He seemed to focus on Sharon’s efforts to revise the plan to accommodate some Israeli objections on such issues as the right of return.

The PlO Executive Committee had announced on May 3 that it accepted the Roadmap and Powell noted that the new Palestinian leadership must dismantle the terrorist infrastructure and that Abbas understood the requirement that terror had to be ended. During his visit, Powell met with Israeli foreign minister Shalom and with Sharon. On the Palestinian side, he met only with Abbas and his team, which took place in Jericho rather than in Ramallah, where Arafat was located and under Israeli siege.On May 17, Sharon and Abbas met to discuss possible next steps to move the process forward, but the atmosphere was not conducive to that end.

The day before they met, the senior Palestinian peace negotiator, Saeb Erekat, submitted his resignation suggesting significant divisions within the Palestinian camp between Arafat’s loyalists and those more attuned to the views of Abbas. A spate of violence designed to destroy the Roadmap and the efforts to achieve peace followed. A Palestinian suicide bomber boarded a bus in Jerusalem and killed himself and a number of passengers while wounding many more. Another bomber killed only himself. A third bomber killed an Israeli couple in Hebron.

Sharon did not initially endorse the Roadmap and awaited the meeting scheduled for May 20 with Bush in Washington to do so. But then the violence by extremists brought the process to a brief halt, and Sharon postponed his visit. Sharon insisted that he would not sign on to the Roadmap until Abbas cracked down on Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Abbas insisted that Sharon first accept the Roadmap and then he could begin to crack down on the Islamic terrorist movements.

After the renewed violence, Israel imposed a “general closure” on the West Bank, thus preventing Palestinians from crossing the line between Israel and the West Bank. Despite these actions, Sharon continued to meet with Abbas. At the same time, the Israelis suggested that Arafat was implicated in the recent terrorist efforts and announced that it would shun foreign representatives who met with Arafat.

A fifth suicide bombing in less than 48 hours took place on May 19 at the entrance to a shopping mall in Afula. The first four attacks were claimed by Hamas. The Afula bombing was claimed by Islamic Jihad and the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades.Bush, meanwhile, defended the Roadmap and sought to revive the Israeli-Palestinian discussions in the wake of the five bombings. He suggested that all parties were on the road to peace, but it was “going to be a bumpy road.”

Accepting the Roadmap

On Friday, May 23, the government of Israel formally announced its acceptance of the steps outlined in the Roadmap. This followed intensive negotiations between Israel and the u.S. government in the weeks following the formal issuance of the Roadmap. Israel’s conditions were addressed, and its concerns were assuaged. Israel considered its 14 comments or reservations as part of the Roadmap, and this is the way they were conveyed to the u.S. administration. On May 23, Prime Minister Sharon’s bureau released a statement:

In view of the recent statement of the U.S. regarding the Israeli comments on the Roadmap, which shares the view of the Government of Israel that these are real concerns and in view of the U.S. promise to address those concerns fully and seriously in the implementation of the Roadmap to fulfill the President’s vision of June 24, 2002, we are prepared to accept the steps set out in the Roadmap. I intend to submit this acceptance to the Government of Israel’s approval.

On May 25, the government of Israel considered the prime minister’s statement on the Roadmap, as well as Israel’s comments on its implementation. The cabinet, like Sharon, accepted the various steps of the plan, rather than the overall plan, and indicated that it would continue to try to change it along the lines of the 14 objections it had earlier raised with the united States. An overriding concern of Sharon and some in the government was to be able to send a positive signal to the united States.

The Israeli “acceptance” was not clear and unequivocal. But, it was historic, because for the first time the Israeli government had formally committed itself to the formation of a Palestinian state on the western side of the Jordan River. Public reaction in Israel appeared to be positive, although there were many doubters and skeptics.

As some of the Right pointed out, the Roadmap was in fact supported in a vote by only 12 out of the 23 ministers in the government. Netanyahu was among those abstaining. This majority was achieved after the prime minister said that the 14 reservations Israel had submitted to the united States, as well as the prohibition of the entrance of Palestinian refugees into the State of Israel, were red lines on which Israel would not compromise.

Israel did not see the refugee issue as one of a “right of return” but a “demand to return,” and in Israel’s view the refugees did not have any right to return to Israel proper because the Arab refugee problem was the result of an act of aggression by the Arabs and was therefore up to them to solve it, not Israel. Also, Israel believed it was timely and appropriate for various Jewish organizations to raise the claims of Jews from Arab countries as part of the negotiations of the refugee issue such as compensation for properties they left behind when forced to leave their homes in Arab states after 1948.

Although the resolution’s reservations were important, the significance of the resolution could not be overstated. It constituted the first official Israeli government endorsement of a Palestinian state. But Sharon went somewhat further in his statement to the likud parliamentary faction in which he noted that “occupation” of 3.5 million Palestinians was “bad for Israel and the Palestinians” and could not continue indefinitely.

This was the first time that Sharon used the word occupation, which he had previously rejected as a description of the situation. Sharon suggested that it was the control of a foreign people that constituted occupation, focusing on the people, not the land in question. Israel did not want to control 3.5 million Palestinians with all the political, economic, and security implications of this action.

Middle East Summits

At the end of May 2003, the united States announced two summit meetings to secure support for the Roadmap in the wake of the conclusion of the initial large-scale hostilities in Iraq. On May 28, u.S. national security advisor Condoleezza Rice announced that President Bush would travel to Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, and meet there with President Mubarak of Egypt, Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah of Jordan, King Hamad of Bahrain, and Palestinian prime minister Abbas.

He would then travel to Aqaba, Jordan, and meet individually with King Abdullah, then Sharon, and then Abbas, ending with a trilateral meeting with Sharon and Abbas. The overall purpose of the visit and the summits in the region was to achieve movement on the Roadmap to implement Bush’s vision of June 24, 2002. This trip marked a substantial increase in presidential involvement in these issues, unlike the initial period of the Bush administration.

Moving the Roadmap Along

Sharon and Abbas both sought to reiterate their positions and gain support for their preferences. In an interview in Haaretz on May 27, Abbas stated that this was a historic opportunity to “return to a track of normalcy,” the Roadmap should be implemented as written, and the violence should stop. He also noted that “Arafat is the elected president of the Palestinian Authority and should not be isolated.” After a meeting on May 29, between Sharon and Abbas, Sharon announced that Israel would take a series of steps aimed at easing the living conditions of the Palestinians and seek to improve the Palestinian economy.

In early June, Israel lifted the general closure of the West Bank and Gaza and allowed an increase in the daily number of workers entering Israel from Gaza. Sharon also ordered the dismantling of some illegal outposts in the territories, but to Palestinian leaders and critics of the settlements, the action demonstrated how little Sharon was willing to do.

A Step Backward

The optimism that followed the issuance of the Roadmap and the June summits was soon tempered by continued violence. In the week following the summit, seven Israelis were killed. Israel’s right wing criticized Sharon, described those Israelis as the first victims of the Roadmap policy, and predicted that more would follow. On June 8, the three main Palestinian terrorist groups—Hamas, Palestine Islamic Jihad, and al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades—staged a joint attack on an Israeli army outpost at Erez in Gaza, killing four Israeli soldiers. Thus, they recorded their violent opposition to the Roadmap and their resistance to the occupation.

Israel responded to the attacks with targeted strikes against prominent Hamas figures and others who were involved in the assaults. The Bush administration’s view of Hamas soon conformed to Israel’s: that Hamas and like-minded groups were the primary obstacle to the Bush vision of a peaceful Middle East.

On June 25, Bush said, “The true test for Hamas and terrorist organizations is the complete dismantlement of their terrorist networks, their capacity to blow up the peace process . . .We must see organizations such as Hamas dismantled.”On June 29, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade agreed to a temporary truce (hudna) in which they would suspend attacks against Israelis. This was seen as a first step toward implementation of the Roadmap and the possibility of a viable twostate solution.