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Abbas' Departure Leaves Peace Plan at Crossroads

'There is no road map if you don't have a Palestinian partner,' a former U.S. envoy says.

September 07, 2003|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The resignation of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas could signal the end of the road for the U.S.-backed Middle East peace "road map" unless another major change reinvigorates the process, diplomatic and other observers said Saturday.

"It's a pivot point," said Dennis B. Ross, a top Middle East peace negotiator who worked in the administrations of Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush. "There is no road map if you don't have a Palestinian partner."

The resignation also raised questions about the effectiveness of the U.S. strategy to marginalize Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who resisted relinquishing power to the U.S.-favored Abbas and proved that he remained a leader who could not be ignored.

The developments on the eve of tonight's address by President Bush on his Iraq policy underscored the disarray surrounding the administration's two crucial initiatives in the Middle East. Amid signs that Bush is shifting direction on Iraq, experts called Abbas' resignation a clear setback for the peace initiative.

Behind the scenes, U.S. officials are likely to try to broker a compromise to draw Abbas back with the promise of greater powers over security, and perhaps with more U.S. assistance. But regardless of what Abbas decides to do, any Palestinian Authority prime minister will face the same challenges, and the U.S. is likely to insist that the next prime minister have clearer powers over security.

"The U.S. is going to have to administer some tough love," said Martin Indyk, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and a former ambassador to Israel. "In the end, there's going to have to be an argument over the power."

Abbas' move may also provide U.S. negotiators with a fresh opportunity to put pressure on Arafat by threatening to withdraw from the process or scale back the Bush administration's involvement.

"This gives us some leverage because Palestinians and other Arab countries want us to be part of the process," Ross said. "The U.S. is going to be able to stand back and tell the Palestinians [that] when they get their act together and produce a responsible leader who has power over security and the power to dismantle terrorism, then we'll get engaged. Until then, forget about it."

Although Abbas had threatened to quit several times, the Bush administration appeared somewhat surprised by the resignation. The White House said it remained committed to the peace plan, but it also urged all parties tread carefully.

Palestinians know that the U.S. can ill afford to stay out of the conflict for very long. Already, Bush is facing growing criticism over his reconstruction plan in Iraq, causing officials to shift course and seek greater involvement by the United Nations. A collapse in the peace process between Palestinians and Israelis would embarrass Bush and send political shockwaves throughout the region.

"To retreat entirely would represent a major diplomatic defeat," said Phil Wilcox, president of the Washington-based Foundation for Middle East Peace. "It would defeat the expectations that we have created."

Abbas' resignation focuses attention again on the Israeli and U.S. strategy of trying to push Arafat to the sidelines. Since last year, Bush administration officials have refused to negotiate with Arafat, criticizing him for failing to stem terrorist attacks such as the deadly bus bombing in Jerusalem last month. Arafat was left out of the June summit in Aqaba, Jordan, where Abbas, Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon set out a framework for bringing peace to the region.

At the same time, U.S. officials heaped praise on Abbas, holding him up as the representative of the Palestinian people. On Friday, speaking in Washington, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell commended Abbas' efforts to root out corruption and improve security.

But in edging out a political rival, Arafat showed that he was not ready to be relegated to a ceremonial role.

"Arafat feels he's been humiliated, and now he's reacting," Wilcox said. "It was naive to assume that Abbas could be built into an alternative."

The U.S. also could have done more to help Abbas build support among the Palestinian people by pressuring Israel to crack down on illegal settlements or releasing more Palestinian prisoners, some argued.

"We didn't do enough publicly, or privately, I think, to press as hard on the reciprocal obligations of Israel to begin to withdraw troops and shut down settlement outposts," Wilcox said. "Those are the kind of things Abbas desperately needed to build public support."

Instead, the U.S. focused on Abbas' lack of progress in preventing terrorist attacks. After the Jerusalem bombing, U.S. officials criticized Abbas and warned him that he had days, not months, to show that he was taking decisive action against Islamic extremists.

The U.S. could have also helped raise funds for improvement projects in the Gaza Strip or the West Bank, Ross said.

"Those are things we should have tried to do," he said. "Whether it would have been enough, who knows?"

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