YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


A Daunting Trek, Even With a Map

The Mideast proposal faces obstacles like those that doomed earlier efforts, some experts say.

May 01, 2003|Robin Wright | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The "road map" for Middle East peace unveiled Wednesday may be the most detailed and widely backed plan yet to end the 55-year conflict between Israel and the Arabs. But the United States and its allies face daunting obstacles to achieving the goal of creating a Palestinian state by 2005, according to U.S. officials, analysts and former mediators.

Three factors that have altered the political scene since peace efforts collapsed in January 2001 have spawned cautious hope that this plan may succeed where others have failed.

The swearing in this week of Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, has forced aside the recalcitrant Yasser Arafat. The Iraq war forced out Saddam Hussein, Israel's nemesis and a supporter of Palestinian militants. And the war on terrorism has mobilized global opinion and action against extremism.

The plan, which was formally given to the Israelis and the Palestinians on Wednesday, calls for reciprocal measures through three phases, highlighted by an end to Palestinian violence and various Israeli concessions on border closures and Jewish settlements. The creation of a provisional Palestinian state would be in the second phase, and intense negotiations over Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees and final borders in the third.

President Bush was upbeat Wednesday, despite the failure of past U.S. efforts to achieve a settlement. Past failures don't "mean that we're not going to try, for starters," he told reporters. "I'm an optimist. Now that we have an interlocutor from the Palestinian Authority that has spoken clearly about the need to fight terror ... we have a good opportunity to advance the peace process. And I will seize that opportunity."

Bush also said the Iraq war had signaled that forces supporting, funding or harboring terrorists will be held to account. "That, in itself, helps create the conditions to move peace forward," he said.

The plan, designed by the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia, also comes at a time of common cause between Israelis and Palestinians about ending the current "war process," according to Dennis Ross, the chief U.S. mediator under the first Bush and Clinton administrations.

"What makes the road map possible is a convergence of interests in the near term. Abu Mazen has said there is no military solution to the Palestinian issue and that terrorism is destroying a just cause. And [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon knows from an economic standpoint that he needs to bring the current struggle to a conclusion," said Ross, who is now director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Yet a common desire to end the current violence does not guarantee movement forward on peace, Ross cautioned. It also offers an "illusion of specificity" with detailed requirements that still have to be translated into agreed actions.

In addition, the road map is vulnerable to many of the problems that have plagued earlier efforts, say former officials and mediators. For starters, it is being imposed rather than coming out of negotiations between the parties.

"This is not a road map which either side has signed onto. It wasn't negotiated with them and so the best it can do is serve as a guide," said Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel for the Clinton and current Bush administrations.

The White House has conceded that the road map's release offers no guarantees. "Make no mistake: It will be hard work. There will be a lot of hand-holding required," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Wednesday.

At any point, one party could say enough progress was not being made and the whole process would get stuck, said Shibley Telhami, who holds the Sadat chair in international peace and development at the University of Maryland.

"The road map is far from an ideal document for peacemaking. It is almost entirely dependent on the goodwill of both parties and assumes that both are already committed to the ideas suggested in the road map and will willingly implement them," he said.

"That's not a good place to be, given the suspicions and mistrust that have taken over during the past 2 1/2 years."

The process also relies heavily on one man: Abbas. The new Palestinian leader faces the challenge of dealing with a spectrum of interests, ranging from a right-wing Israeli government to Islamic extremists determined not only to scuttle peace but to destroy Israel.

Sharon's own Likud Party has voted against the peace process, while Arafat has already indicated his unwillingness to cede all major power to Abbas. Meanwhile, Hamas and Islamic Jihad are not prepared to relinquish armed struggle.

"The two suicide attacks in the last few days were not accidental. They were timed for this. And Israel will not pull out or ease controls if they see the possibility that it will only lead to a lot of dead Israelis," Ross said.

Los Angeles Times Articles