- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2003

While all eyes were justly, one may add on Iraq, President Bush, a few days before the Azores conference, nevertheless took the opportunity to make an important statement on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Most commentators have ascribed the timing of Mr. Bush's remarks in the White House Rose Garden to the domestic problems of America's principal allies the leaders of Britain and Spain. But, it would be wrong to ignore the fact that the president's words, at this particular moment, were also aimed at the Palestinians the message being: "Look, America is serious in its war against terrorism and in its intention to create a more stable and peaceful Middle East. It's your chance now to realize many of your aspirations, including running your own lives provided you change your ways, stop the violence, put an end to corruption and change your leadership. Saddam Hussein will be gone before too long and so, effectively if you don't want to be on the wrong side again, should be Yasser Arafat!"
Both Washington and Jerusalem now wait to see if the Palestinians got the message and if their chosen candidate for the prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas (A.K.A. Abu Mazen), got the necessary confirmation from the Palestinian Parliament. And what matters more, if he will stop the terror and violence and be empowered to genuinely and effectively conduct political negotiations with Israel. (So far the signals have been mixed, with Mr. Arafat still trying to hold on to power).
Though Abu Mazen's own political and personal record is far from being unblemished in the past, he had been a vociferous Holocaust denier more recently he has come out against terrorism. Still, he will have to prove his mettle, and only the future will tell if he is willing and able to translate those verbal pro-peace pronouncements into actions.
The emphasis in the president's remarks on peace in the Middle East as a whole, and not just on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, was clearly related to the approaching campaign against Saddam Hussein. Not only has the Arab-Israel issue never been the sole or even the main cause of Middle East instability (since World War II there were about 25 armed conflicts in the region only five or six of which had anything to do with said conflict), but contrary to the view held by some of the professional "Arabists," the post-Iraq war situation may indeed have the potential to make reaching a solution to the Palestinian problem more feasible.
When President Bush had declared a few weeks ago that "success in Iraq could also begin a new stage for Middle Eastern peace," he clearly confronted the view held, among others, by Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, that "the road to Baghdad leads through Jerusalem." The president turned this argument on its head, linking peace between Israel and the Palestinians to Saddam Hussein's ouster. As he said: "Without this [Iraqi] support for terrorism, Palestinians who are working for reform and long for democracy will be in a better position to choose new leaders."
But, getting back to the president's Rose Garden remarks on the road map and peace in the Middle East they clearly indicated that, in spite of mentioning the role of America's partners in the "Quartet" (the European Union, Russia and the U.N.), it would be the United States and not they who would set the tone. It would have been indeed strange had it been otherwise. For, after all, the E., and especially France, and to a lesser degree Russia, considering the position they had taken with regards to Iraq, could now hardly lay claim to any remaining moral or political justification for trying to play a role in bringing peace and stability to the Middle East, including the Arab-Israeli conflict. Nor would it make a lot of sense to give America's partners in the Quartet too significant a role in monitoring the process, given the fact that at least parts of the proposed monitoring mechanism would be driven more by political motives some highly questionable in the light of events than by concerns about the actual performance by either the Palestinians or Israel.
France, nostalgically looking back to its imperial past, especially in the Middle East, or as it was then called, the Levant, wants to increase its influence in the region as a whole if possible at the expense of the United States. More than anything else, President Jacques Chirac apparently believes that his stance with regards to Iraq, with France standing up to American "arrogance," would enhance its position around the world, and especially among the Arabs. The French, who usually pride themselves on their Cartesian rationalism, thus seem to have succumbed to a totally irrational hopefully temporary folie de grandeur, not only arousing the ire and suspicion of Britain, Spain, Italy and most Eastern European countries, but also taking a position which is going to sideline them politically and perhaps economically including in the Middle East and in post-war Iraq.
One cannot avoid the feeling that the Quartet's draft of the road-map was concocted by too many cooks, not all of them using the same recipe. It was pretty clear from the beginning that the United States at that point in time was principally, and rightly, more concerned with the Iraqi issue, and that, therefore, not a few parts in the draft didn't actually reflect America's intentions. As already mentioned, the United States correctly judged that a successful conclusion to the Iraqi campaign would create a completely new political situation in the Middle East as a whole not least with regards to the Palestinians who would be forced, for their own good, to finally understand that the only way forward for them was by accommodation based on compromise with Israel and not by continuing intransigence and violence.
What is clear is that there are several important differences between the European approach to the proposed plan and that of the United States. Not only is the road-map in America's eyes not some impracticable "dictate," but a draft document to which the United States will "expect and welcome contributions" from Israel and the Palestinians. But, perhaps even more importantly, the president again reiterated that, contrary to some European and U.N. perceptions, progress can only be sequential. Thus, moving forward on the road-map would depend on concrete performance not on some artificial and unattainable timetable; in other words, only if it will be seen that the new Palestinian prime minister will engage in purposeful political negotiations with Israel. Only after Palestinian terror and violence have come to an end in Mr. Bush's own words, "the Palestinian state must be a reformed and peaceful and democratic state that abandons forever the use of terror" can there be real progress towards peace, let alone Palestinian statehood (which aren't necessarily one and the same thing).
In the past, Arab and some European politicians had blamed the Bush administration for not being sufficiently engaged in trying to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, ignoring the fact that parts of Arab and Muslim public opinion, especially the more radical elements who want to destroy Israel, not make peace with it oppose America precisely because it has spent so much energy on trying to end the conflict. That is, that even the Clinton plan presented in late 2000, promising the Palestinians 97 percent to 98 percent of the West Bank and Gaza, including most of East Jerusalem, plus 3 percent of Israel proper, was not only rejected outright by Yasser Arafat, but was anything but popular with the rest of the Arab world.
One may expect the harping and the criticism to continue whatever the United States will do. But, not too long after the aims of the campaign against Saddam Hussein will be achieved, and after the different elements in the proposed road-map will be comprehensively studied and possibly revised in view of the new situation, progress towards finding equitable arrangements on the Palestinian-Israeli issue, with American help, will hopefully also take off.

Zalman Shoval, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, is a senior adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

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