Even as American and British troops continued fighting in Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair arrived in the United States this week in part to press the Bush administration to finally release the "road map," a Palestinian-Israeli peace plan leading to a Palestinian state by 2005.
Israel’s new foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, also arrives this week to meet senior administration officials. The road map is expected to be a prime topic of discussion.
President George W. Bush promised on March 14 to publish the document once the Palestinians selected an empowered prime minister.
The road map was prepared Dec. 20 by the Quartet: the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union. Its release has been delayed several times by the U.S.
But in an address to the British parliament Wednesday, Blair said implementation of the road map was a must because the Israeli-Palestinian crisis is an issue that most divides the West from the Muslim and Arab world.
At a time when Britain and the U.S. are taking military action in Iraq, Blair said, it is "important that we make sure we broaden the agenda that we present to the world, which is why I believe issues like the Middle East peace process are … equally important."
He said he was aware of skeptics who believe the road map is "simply statements that will be made in the context of military action in Iraq and then forgotten."
"They will not be forgotten," Blair insisted. "They will be taken forward and they will be done."
Mahmoud Abbas, the newly selected Palestinian prime minister, is expected to choose his cabinet within the next two weeks. After that he is expected to be invited to Washington to meet with senior administration officials, perhaps even Bush, according to Judith Kipper of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Although there have been conflicting reports about whether Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will have a chance to revise the road map before its release, Kipper said she is convinced "it is not up for revision."
"The urgency of dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is very real because they are both suffering so much," she said. "This administration and the Quartet see that both the Israeli and Palestinian polls show [that their populations] are in favor of negotiations and rapprochement."
But Dore Gold, an adviser to Sharon, said that although Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen, is "a figure many people here have worked with, it is too early to say whether he will be able to deliver in the area of security."
"The last time we experimented with [Palestinian President] Yasir Arafat was between Oslo in 1993 and 2000 and Israel suffered tremendous losses during that time. Before we experiment again, we have to make sure the new Palestinian leadership will provide the security [against terrorist attacks] it is supposed to," Gold said.
Kipper argued that trust is not necessary to make peace.
"We never trusted the Soviets," she said. "You don’t have to trust. It would be nicer if they could, but if they trusted each other they wouldn’t be killing each other."
Stephen Cohen, a national scholar of the Israel Policy Forum, said he has no doubt both sides will try to improve the road map, but only after it is released.
"Both parties will have to deal with each other to make sure it happens in a way that meets the needs of both," he said.
Although the Iraq war will preoccupy some who would otherwise be involved in this issue, Cohen said there are "aspects of the road map that could be advanced soon because the Israelis and the Palestinians have not stopped killing each other."
"The president has his primary agenda now (the war) but he decided in full awareness of his launching the war that this process also had to be launched, and it can be," Cohen said. "There are a number of steps that can be taken without the direct engagement of the president, such as ending the violence."
Cohen said the war would actually help the advancement of the road map because it could be pursued "without interference from those who are skeptical about it in the American Jewish community."
But the Sharon government is known to have three major objections with the road map: the call of an independent Palestinian state with fixed borders by 2005; an end to settlement expansion; and the deployment of international monitors to enforce the road map’s provisions.
There are some in Israel who fear that Bush, out of gratitude for Blair’s support in the war with Iraq, may reward him by trying to force these conditions on an unwilling Israel. But Zaki Shalom, a member of the foreign and defense policy unit at the Ben-Gurion Research Center, said Bush has so many other "headaches in other parts of the world (including North Korea, Iran and Libya) that he doesn’t need to add Israel."
"Blair by himself has no power," he said. "He is a factor for Israel only if he can take with him the United States."
Shalom said that if the U.S. does not allow Israel to change the road map, Sharon would either have to dissolve his present government and add the Labor Party, "or say no to the U.S. with all its implications."
"But in my view, if the war goes as expected and ends up with an impressive victory [by the U.S.-led coalition], the U.S. would not impose the road map on Israel and would allow it to make corrections," he said. "The U.S. would be much more positive towards Israel because, if you take Bush’s word for it, the war is the beginning of an overall struggle against evil … and the U.S. would not be willing to risk Israel’s friendship."
Shalom said also that the war has helped Israel by not only removing a dangerous threat but by diminishing America’s ability to criticize Israel for its handling of terrorists. He said America’s use of a targeted bomb to kill Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein would restrain it from again "preaching to us" about using the same tactic against Palestinian terrorist leaders.
Although the road map may be released in coming weeks, Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said he believes "nobody will pay attention to it until the war is over. It will sit on a shelf and collect dust.
"We are dealing with life-and-death issues of the war with Iraq and everything else is secondary," he said. "As long as there is a danger of an Iraqi attack and the use of weapons of mass destruction [against Israel], we will be focusing only on that issue."
The Israeli defense establishment asked citizens this week to continue carrying their gas mask kits with them wherever they go, saying that although the risk of an attack by Iraq was low it could not be ruled out. (See story on page 50.)
Senior Israeli military sources were quoted as saying that not a single Scud launcher had been destroyed one week into the war and that no Scud missiles or nonconventional weapons had been discovered. They said Israel would remain on high alert until the U.S.-led coalition could be certain that Israel could no longer be attacked.
Israeli Gen. Amos Gilad said there is concern that as the American-led coalition approaches Baghdad, Hussein might wish to launch an attack on Israel before he is killed.
"Maybe he will use an attack in order to be remembered as one of the most important leaders … in a way that will be learned in history books for a long, long time," Gilad told members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in a conference call Wednesday. "He is hiding missiles, and as long as the western side of Iraq is not under full control of coalition forces, there is a danger that Israel will be attacked by nonconventional missiles."
"The conclusion for Israel is to continue with routine life but on the other hand to be ready," added Gilad, Israel’s spokesman on the war in Iraq. "The most sensitive stage of the war between the Republican Guard and the U.S. forces is now."
He noted that there is "not even the slightest possibility to begin a political process" for Palestinian-Israeli peace until Palestinian terror attacks are ended.
"Every day we are catching, preventing, arresting terrorists," he said. "Yesterday we caught a booby-trapped car and today a terrorist with a [bomb belt] around his body. Everyday we are preventing the killing and murdering of at least 20 Israelis."
Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza held street demonstrations in support of Hussein, calling for him to "burn Tel Aviv."
In Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip, Palestinians on Wednesday even set up an Iraq solidarity tent. Hundreds of people, including officials of the Palestinian Authority, attended the opening. There is a similar tent in Gaza City.
Palestinians are said to see Hussein as a "defender of Arab rights" fending off an attack against "all Arabs and Muslims."
A Palestinian policeman posted outside Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters was quoted as saying that "everyone was happy to see pictures of American soldiers in Iraqi custody."
Palestinian Health Minister Ghassan Khattib explained that the Palestinians want to see an end to the war, and that as long as it continues and there are Iraqi casualties, "some want Americans to pay a price."
Khattib added that he believed the war was going to have a long-term negative strategic affect on the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Quartet seems to be the first casualty.
"[The Quartet] was an achievement and has been doing some work," he said. "The deterioration of the American-European relations over the issue of Iraq might reflect negatively on relations vis-a-vis the Middle East."
But Steinberg said the Israeli view is that the American decision to press ahead with the road map is nothing but "political cover for Blair, and the Israelis are not going to go along." He stressed that the road map itself is not a problem for Israel but that the issue is when it should be implemented.
"That the appointment of Abu Mazen should somehow represent a regime change by the Palestinians is something the Israeli public will not accept," Steinberg explained. "It needs to go a lot deeper and longer to see if it is serious or not."