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'Map' of Uncharted Territory

Palestinians and Israelis confront practical problems not addressed in the peace plan, and which threaten to derail the fragile deal.

June 08, 2003|Alissa Rubin | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — The squalid West Bank streets where Palestinian gunmen hide in safe houses and Israeli soldiers pursue them to the death is a long way from the blue sea and applause of the Arab-Israeli peace summit last week in the Jordanian port of Aqaba.

But it is there in the alleys and warrens that the peace plan may succeed or fail. And as a deadly incident just hours after the summit ended suggests, there are 101 ways the deal could fall apart.

On Thursday night, Israeli border security obtained intelligence indicating that three operatives with the militant group Hamas were plotting a terror attack inside Israel. The security forces surrounded a house near the West Bank town of Tulkarm, and when the alleged plotters refused to come out, the Israelis stormed the home, according to an Israel Defense Forces spokesman.

Inside, they found the three men in a hiding place armed with a Kalashnikov rifle and a handgun. The Israelis opened fire, and two of the Palestinians were killed.

The incident, not unusual by pre-peace summit standards, set off a storm of criticism that risks unraveling the "road map" before it has even begun to be enacted.

Palestinian politicians condemned the incident as an "assassination," and it quickly became a prime example to Palestinians of Israel's lack of good faith.

Within hours of the incident, a Hamas leader announced that the organization was withdrawing from cease-fire negotiations with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, raising the prospect of a renewal of suicide bombings by the group. As of late Saturday, Abbas and Hamas leaders appeared headed for a showdown, with the Palestinian leader ruling out further dialogue with Hamas.

Such a conflagration raises two critical questions: Will Abbas survive, at the very least politically? Will Israel turn over security responsibilities to the Palestinians? And that is only the beginning.

The road map addresses none of these on-the-ground problems. At issue is not the peace plan's goals, which are similar to those agreed to by previous peace negotiators. Instead, the plan's deep vulnerability is that it omitted many details about the means to the ends.

Exacerbating the problem, the language chosen to describe the steps that each side must take is open to widely divergent interpretations.

Such omissions and obfuscations were in part an effort to avoid having so many hard and fast requirements that the plan would fail before it even started. But the vagueness was also a product of the difficulty of getting the two sides to agree to steps that are genuinely painful.

That lack of clear signposts is likely to make progress problematic.

"The road map has no roads -- it just has some points: fighting terrorism, freezing settlements, reforms in the Palestinian Authority, territorial compromise," said Uzi Dayan, a former general and head of Israel's National Security Council. "There is no road that shows how to get from one point to another."

Obvious policy changes such as the removal of Jewish settlement outposts in Palestinian territories raise the question: What is an "outpost"? Is it a group of houses a half mile from a main settlement but viewed by residents as simply a new neighborhood, or does it refer only to a group of homes on an isolated hilltop?

If the people are to leave the outposts, where should they go? Will they be reimbursed by the government for the loss of their homes? If so, how much will they get?

"One would have thought that by the time the leaders made their statements at Aqaba that some kind of agreement on details would have been reached so that step-by-step things could have been done in an organized way," said Sari Nusseiba, a founder of the People's Peace Campaign, a Palestinian organization that coordinates closely with Israeli peace activists.

Much hangs on the leadership of the two chief executives, and both must make moves that will be politically or personally difficult for them.

If Abbas is to control the militant groups that are threatening to resume violent action against Israelis, he will have to instruct members of his security force to take on their own people. Such actions would be enormously unpopular because, as was evident in the Thursday night incident, the Israelis are continuing to play a military role in Palestinian areas.

And Sharon will have to acknowledge that his robust support of the Jewish settlements for more than a decade must be reversed.

"Sharon is the founding father of the settlements," said Avinoam Brog, head of Marketwatch, a market research and public opinion firm. "He is the man that is personally responsible for the settler movement more than any other politician. Withdrawing from all those settlements is not an easy thing to do."

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