Blood Spatters the American Road Map


By Shira Herzog

Globe and Mail
June 12, 2003

To borrow from Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel, the fate of the American road map already seems like a ''chronicle of a death foretold.'' To really understand what happened, one has to go back to last week's summit in Aqaba and its respective impact on Palestinian Messrs Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. When U.S. President George W. Bush promised ''to ride herd'' over the two leaders, he may have underestimated how difficult it would be.

Since his appointment three months ago, Mr. Abbas, the Palestinian prime minister, has been caught in an impossible bind: The American and Israeli leaders will deal only with him even as Yasser Arafat continues to undermine any effort to bolster his successor; the Palestinian public views him as an "American project"; and Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and several Fatah factions openly oppose him. To act against his domestic opposition, Mr. Abbas needs to shore up his constituency's support. He can only gain such support only by demonstrating improved conditions on the ground, specifically through an easing of Israeli restrictions on Palestinians' daily life and mobility.

But Israel will do nothing until Mr. Abbas fights Hamas . . . it's daunting, to say the least.

With little room to manoeuver, Mr. Abbas has opted for an incremental strategy. First, he's trying to negotiate a year-long ceasefire with the rejectionist groups to gain breathing space. Once Israel withdraws from Palestinian towns, he believes he can rebuild Palestine Authority institutions and earn the public support he so desperately needs. Only then, with retrained security forces, does Mr. Abbas plan to disarm the opposition groups, perhaps co-opting them into the political process. It's a high-wire act for Mr. Abbas -- and incredibly risky for Israel.

Faced with a barrage of deadly suicide bombings against civilian targets -- the latest of which killed 16 sixteen Israelis yesterday -- the Israeli army demands that Mr. Abbas wage all-out war against Hamas. While clearly in Israel's best interest, all-out war is wishful thinking. At the moment, Mr. Abbas has neither the operational capacity nor the moral and political backing to physically fight Hamas. If he does, he will likely lose. But if Israel fights Hamas instead -- as it tried to do in this week's attacks in Gaza -- Mr. Abbas will certainly lose.

Last week's carefully orchestrated summit was supposed to cautiously inject momentum into the failed peace process. What happened there to exacerbate the situation? Mr. Abbas played his American card, but returned from Aqaba to a cool reception at home. Washington heard what he said about fulfilling his obligations under the road map, including a resounding condemnation of violence against Israelis, but Ramallah and Gaza also heard what he didn't say. The omission of specific Palestinian claims and the value of non-violent resistance to the Israeli occupation confused even Mr. Abbas's supporters, who believed he had sold out to the Americans. Predictably, Hamas exploited the situation to leave ceasefire talks already under way and to attack Israeli targets. It's a familiar modus operandi: Hamas acts against the Palestine Authority by killing Israelis.

Mr. Sharon had a different problem in Aqaba. In spite of what he believed was full co-ordination with the United States, he was surprised by Mr. Bush's agreement to an intra-Palestinian ceasefire and his strong commitment to implementing the road map. Mr. Sharon reacted in character and played his security card. By attempting to assassinate Hamas spokesman Abdul Aziz Rantisi on Tuesday, the Israeli Prime Minister drew his own line in the sand for Washington and Ramallah to see. The bloody reaction was quick to come. Scores of casualties later, Mr. Abbas' Abbas's already fragile position and his strategy have been badly discredited.

Still, we're not necessarily back to square one. The new regional reality that brought Americans, Israelis and Palestinians to Aqaba hasn't changed: In the aftermath of Saddam's fall, Hamas leaders in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria are newly chastened and scrutinized by their host countries. Mr. Abbas and Mr. Sharon both know the crippling effect of continued violence on their societies' economies and stability. The American public supports President Bush's firm determination to exercise his leverage. Saudi Arabia is nervous. Egypt is actively mediating among Palestinian factions.

So here are two possible scenarios: In the "best" case, hemmed in by international and regional pressure, Hamas will agree to a ceasefire after all. This, in turn, will pave the way for implementation of the road map's first stage, but will leave the extremists' infrastructure untouched for the time being. American and possibly other monitors will be on the ground with a strong mandate.

In the worst case, Hamas will continue to attack. Israel will retaliate against Hamas's leadership, Mr. Abbas will become more isolated domestically, and the road-map concept will be severely crippled. Neither choice is a good one. Moreover, while some may find this worrisome, only President Bush can influence the outcome.

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