If Bush is really serious

By Yossi Beilin


Nisan 2, 5765

Meetings between the prime minister of Israel or the head of the Palestinian Authority and the president of the United States are liable to amount to nothing more than polite smiles and pats on the back along with press conferences where unequivocal and totally meaningless commitments to peace are sounded, in accordance with the Bush vision and the road map peace plan, despite the fact that none of the dates mentioned in the road map are relevant anymore. On the other hand, if Bush wants, these meetings could be very productive and have a positive impact on the diplomatic maneuvering of the coming months.

Bush can address the main problems on the two sides: Despite relative quiet, the government of Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) still appears to be too weak, his security mechanisms have yet to be merged and there is no real attempt being made to collect weapons from the various organizations.

Sharon, on his part, has not implemented his commitment from Sharm el-Sheikh and has not allowed Abu Mazen to demonstrate to his public that everyday life has improved. Contrary to the commitments in the road map, Sharon is continuing to build in the settlements, and even recently resurrected the plan for massive construction between Jerusalem and Ma'aleh Adumim, a plan that would eliminate the possibility of establishing a contiguous Palestinian state in the framework of a final status accord. The legal status of the Gaza Strip after the Israeli withdrawal is not sufficiently clear and the status of the northern West Bank is even more hazy; no one knows what the Palestinians will be permitted to do there.

The first stage of the road map was supposed to last for a few months and end in May 2003. Both sides circumvented its terms: The Palestinians preferred an internal cease-fire to a war against terror, and Israel preferred a withdrawal from Gaza to a settlement freeze. The United States, on its part, did not continually monitor the situation on the ground, and each side blames the other for failing to implement the road map.

No one knows when the second stage of the road map is supposed to start, but it is clear to everyone that it leads to a potential confrontation: Sharon insists that during this stage there will be negotiations for a Palestinian state with "temporary borders," while Abu Mazen argues that such negotiations are just one option in the road map and that he does not intend to fall into the trap of a permanent interim accord. He will only agree to negotiations if they pertain to a final status agreement.

Bush can untangle this knot. It is completely justified to demand that Abu Mazen merge the Palestinian security forces into three organizations and collect unauthorized weapons. It would also be appropriate to provide him with a letter equivalent to the one Sharon received on April 14. This letter would clarify to the Palestinians how the United States envisions the future Palestinian state.

The U.S. should demand of Sharon that he fulfill his commitments regarding the unauthorized outposts and a settlement freeze. He should also be asked to define exactly what the legal status of northern Samaria will be after the settlements are evacuated from that area.

Bush, on his part, can give both sides an updated timetable for the road map. Having already declared that he would like to see a Palestinian state established before the end of his second term, the map could be updated to have the final accord implemented by 2008. He will ask both sides to begin negotiations on the second stage of the road map, and since Abu Mazen does not intend to declare a Palestinian state within temporary borders, this interim stage could be implemented through a third "redeployment" in accordance with the interim agreement of 1995. Once there is an agreement on new borders for the Palestinian Authority, negotiations on a final accord could commence. In light of the fact that violations by both sides constitute one of the central problems in the implemention of the road map, it is important for Bush to establish the international monitoring mechanism that is stipulated in the road map but that has never been established.

All of these things are possible. None of them, ostensibly, contradict the basic positions of the Americans, Israelis or Palestinians. All are anchored in the road map and agreements signed in the past between the sides. The only question is how serious Bush takes the commitment he took upon himself - to assist in bringing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to an end. During his first term in office, he contributed very little to advance this process. In his second term, he still has a period of grace.