Obama goes by the road map

The US president is following its rule book, and Israel is failing to comply.

Obama 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Obama 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Back in 2003 when the road map was introduced, the clear impression of many observers, myself among them, was that it was stillborn. Palestinian president Yasser Arafat would interfere with the efforts of newly-appointed prime minister Mahmoud Abbas to restrain Palestinian violence. Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon would insist on Palestinian compliance on ceasing violence before he froze settlement construction and removed outposts. US president George W. Bush's newfound commitment to a proactive role in the peace process seemed largely rhetorical. And indeed, all the villains in this scenario lived up to worst-case expectations. Nevertheless, something happened. Sharon responded to the road map by withdrawing from the Gaza Strip. Arafat passed from the scene and Abbas remains committed to nonviolence. Bush responded to the Hamas takeover of Gaza by investing heavily and successfully in helping the Palestinian Authority, now restricted to the West Bank, deliver on its road map phase I obligations of ending violence and building institutions. Now along comes a new American president, Barack Obama, and demands that Israel finally seriously fulfill its own phase I obligations regarding settlements. Thus the road map - whose full title, tellingly, is "A Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict" - is still with us. And phase I in particular is relevant. It presents a logical checklist of the positive developments that have to take place on both sides for any lasting progress toward a two-state solution to be contemplated: "Palestinians immediately undertake an unconditional cessation of violence... accompanied by supportive measures undertaken by Israel. Palestinians and Israelis resume security cooperation... to end violence, terrorism, and incitement through restructured and effective Palestinian security services. Palestinians undertake comprehensive political reform in preparation for statehood, including drafting a Palestinian constitution, and free, fair and open elections upon the basis of those measures. Israel takes all necessary steps to help normalize Palestinian life. Israel withdraws from Palestinian areas occupied from September 28, 2000, and the two sides restore the status quo that existed at that time, as security performance and cooperation progress. Israel also freezes all settlement activity, consistent with the Mitchell report." True, the timetables have long since expired and the Palestinian elections produced an unwanted and destructive result. But the contrast between PA and Israeli fulfillment of phase I obligations - or at least serious attempts to fulfill them, however tardily - is striking. In the last two years, the PA has begun solidly delivering on security in the West Bank and building institutions of governance. Israel has done little to stop settlement growth or remove outposts. Nor has a succession of Israeli governments made any move to withdraw to the September 2000 lines or restore the Palestinian institutional status quo in East Jerusalem as phase I demands. THIS CONTRAST is all the more striking if we factor in Israel's insistence, framed in Sharon's 14 point response to the road map, that phase I obligations be sequential and not parallel: Israel would fulfill its obligations only after the Palestinians fulfilled theirs. The US and the rest of the Quartet never recognized this Israeli demand, which pointedly contradicts the language of phase I. But even if they were to accept it, Israel still hasn't complied with regard to settlements and Jerusalem in response to Palestinian security achievements. Only the persistent prodding of the Obama administration has brought a grudging government of Israel to begin dismantling West Bank checkpoints and to contemplate a serious effort to remove outposts. In its final year in office, the Bush administration orchestrated one major structural adjustment to the road map. Under the Annapolis process, Israel and the Palestinians agreed to enter phase III - final-status talks - in parallel with phase I undertakings, with the stipulation that implementation of a negotiated peace would await fulfillment of phase I institution-building obligations. Because Israel and the PLO never reached an agreed final-status agreement, this arrangement could not be put to the test. But it certainly does not appear to have reduced Palestinian motivation in the West Bank to carry out the institution-building and security tasks outlined in phase I. Interestingly, Obama's demands regarding settlements are not presented publicly as a call for Israeli compliance with the road map. As we see when we look at phases II and III, the Obama team is fairly closely following the road map rule book even as it officially ignores that document and embraces a regional, comprehensive approach. Presumably, it wants to avoid being tainted by what appears to be its predecessor's failure in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. Yet it's all there in the road map. Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons.org family of Internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. This article first appeared in bitterlemons.org and is published by permission.