Last week's tragic exchange of bloodshed between Israelis and Palestinians revealed three things about the prospects for peace: The Aqaba conference didn't change the parties' self-defeating propensity for tit-for-tat killing; the "road map" has serious flaws that could ultimately undermine its implementation; and for the process to succeed, President Bush will have to make the Middle East a top priority.
One central problem in the road map is that it asks each side to take steps toward peace before knowing how the critical issues—the fate of Palestinian refugees, borders, settlements, Jerusalem, water—will be resolved. This means that every step will be fitfully taken out of the fear that it will undermine one's leverage for the next one. The certain knowledge that the opposition on both sides will challenge their leaders' every step exacerbates the situation. The same kind of dynamic helped undermine the Oslo accords, which aimed to build confidence incrementally. Instead, it gave Israeli and Palestinian militants bountiful opportunities to undermine the process.
In many ways, the road map faces more obstacles than the Oslo agreements. Among the things going for it is that most Israelis and Palestinians have reconciled themselves to the two-state solution. But the growing perception on both sides that peace is ultimately impossible may become an insurmountable hurdle.
At times during the Oslo process, the relationship between former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat enabled them to conspire to undermine their opponents at home. No such relationship exists among today's leaders. Every move is perceived as tactical, designed to deflect international pressure and maneuver for a better bargaining position. Palestinians who see in Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon the man responsible for the Sabra and Shatila massacres in Lebanon in 1982 refuse to believe he has changed. And most Israelis believe that even though Mahmoud Abbas is the Palestinian Authority's prime minister, Arafat remains the real power behind the scenes and facilitates suicide bombers. Trust has all but disappeared.
The failure of the Oslo process, after seven years of negotiations, has made Israelis and Palestinians even more impatient. In the early days of Oslo, when optimism prevailed, both sides were willing to accept mere promises. Today, meetings, conferences, handshakes and words are occasions for cynicism. Promises are dismissed. Only acts count—violent acts, it seems.
What sustains the cycle of grief and killing is the belief, paradoxical as it may seem, that retaliation is the only way to prevent the situation from further deteriorating. If one side doesn't respond to provocation, the thinking goes, the other will think it weak and hit it even harder. Any attempt to move toward peace cannot succeed unless this self-defeating dynamic is overcome.
The Bush administration's success in pushing for change within the Palestinian Authority has shifted attention to what it can do to persuade Sharon to move forward. Abbas has said all the right things, and probably means them. His conciliatory speech in Aqaba—in which he denounced violence, committed himself to disarm militants and omitted references to such emotional issues as the right of return—boosted his stature in the U.S. and in Israel. But it undermined his already low standing at home.
Even within the Palestinian Authority and among Palestinian moderates, Abbas is regarded as America's man. Most Palestinians reject disarming the militants before they see some real changes in their own lives, like Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian cities. Disarmament, they fear, will clear the way for Sharon's plans—even as Israel fears that any withdrawal before the violence ends would weaken its hand.
The inequality of power between Israelis and Palestinians complicates implementation of the road map. The Israeli army controls Palestinian land and is able to punish Palestinians if they don't comply with the road map. It can refuse to withdraw from Palestinian cities, as well as impose curfews, arbitrarily establish checkpoints and make life in general miserable for the Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority has no answer for such power, which enables militant groups to gain some measure of public support for their horrible deeds. This is one reason why international mediation, including an effective monitoring role, will be indispensable to the implementation of any peace plan.
Certainly, the Palestinians must end the suicide bombings, which are both immoral and self-defeating. But Abbas needs two things to accomplish that goal. First, the Palestinian Authority's security forces must be rebuilt. In the past 2 1/2 years of violence, they, along with many Palestinian institutions, have been devastated by the Israeli army. Second, Abbas must attract the Palestinian public to his side, and for that he needs Israeli and international support. For his part, and without jeopardizing Israel's security, Sharon could dismantle a good number of settlements. Just as suicide bombings have undermined Israeli confidence in Palestinian intentions, so have settlements eroded Palestinian hopes that Israel will withdraw from Palestinian lands.
Although progress toward peace will largely depend on the parties themselves, U.S. mediation, to be successful in this difficult environment, cannot be done on the cheap. Every step called for in the road map requires spending political capital abroad and at home, possibly at the expense of other issues. The Bush administration's commitment to peace, expressed most clearly at Aqaba, faces an early test. If it cannot persuade Sharon to refrain from militarily responding to every attack against it and to dismantle promptly the few settlement outposts that his government deems unauthorized, the road map is doomed to remain on the drawing boards. These challenges are small compared with those that lie ahead.