26 August 2004
Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note, as Washington this week quietly buried the road-map to peace in the Middle East. It was an act of omission as much as commission. But the effect was the same. By failing to condemn, and indeed discreetly letting it be known that it supported, Ariel Sharon's plans to expand key settlements in the occupied West Bank, America effectively killed off a plan that was contingent on Israel stopping all new settlement activity.
Washington did it, as far as can be seen, without any reference to its partners in the road-map: Europe, Russia and the United Nations. But then President Bush consulted no one, least of all Tony Blair, when he met with Ariel Sharon last spring and accepted the Israeli Prime Minister's policy on retaining major West Bank settlements and refusing the right of return to Palestinian refugees. Tony Blair was there the same week, knew nothing about it, said nothing in criticism of it and was left lamely proclaiming that the Palestinians should at least look on the bright side with the proposed Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.
This time is no different. The US acceptance of additional settlement building is so absolute a slap in the face of its road-map partners, so exclusively attuned to the President's domestic political needs, that its partners have responded with open-mouthed silence. No one denies the implications. But no one - not the British, who once seemed so keen on leading the way to Middle East peace in parallel with the Iraqi invasion, nor the Democratic Party in America which is so enthusiastic a critic of every other part of President Bush's Middle East policy - is prepared to come out and say anything as the peace plan is buried beneath a gravestone marked "a forgotten victim of the US presidentials".
Of course there will be those who say that the plan was dead on its feet already. And they would be right. The problem of the road-map was that, by concentrating on the steps towards peace and avoiding the final settlement issues that brought down Clinton's Camp David efforts, the plan left itself at the mercy of passions on the ground.
The Palestinian Authority couldn't control the intifada without some firm promise of an acceptable peace settlement. Ariel Sharon and his government never liked the plan and always made Israel's actions contingent first on a cessation of violence. As a plan, the road-map could only have worked if the various parties were already at the point of wanting and being prepared for peace. They weren't.
But if few will mourn the passing of the plan per se, that is no reason to cheer its demise. Flawed though it was, the road-map at least represented an international commitment to push for peace, a recognition by the wider community that a settlement of the Palestinian issue was an essential part of better relations between the Arabs and the West.
This would be the very worst moment to throw that away, just as the world teeters on the precipice of a general confrontation between the Muslim world and the West. Clearly little can be expected from the US before the November elections. Even then it is doubtful that a change in government would bring that radical a change in policy, especially if the Democrats bring back to power Dennis Ross, Clinton's Middle East adviser and a man who has lost almost all credibility among Palestinians.
But at least a Kerry administration might be expected to withdraw from President Bush's outright, and at times perverse, policy of shoring up the embattled position of Sharon. And there is at least a chance that John Kerry, in contrast to President Bush, might welcome an internationalisation of the peace efforts, if nothing else to share the burden.
For the Europeans, as for the UN, there is no choice. They cannot afford to leave the Middle East to stew in its own juice. Much though Israel may dislike, and distrust, European intervention, the reality is that the European Union has to take an active part in something that lies on its borders and affects the communities within its boundaries. Nor can Israel, with the huge European market on its doorstep, act as if the Union doesn't exists and doesn't have interests in how it deals with the Palestinian question.
In the end, of course, it is up to the Israelis and the Palestinians to sort out some form of co-existence between themselves. Looking at the state of Israeli politics and the internecine struggles within the Palestinian community there is ample cause for despair. If there is any room for optimism it may lie in the very awfulness of the situation. Perhaps a younger generation will see the futility of the present and push aside Sharon and Arafat in pursuit of a better future. There is little that can be done with the two of them still there.
But in the meantime there is a role for the international community to keep involved and active in the search for peace, and to make absolutely clear the wider world's belief that a just and lasting settlement can only rest on the twin pillars of a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 boundaries. And in that there can be no room for new settlement activity, with or without the nod from Washington.