The surprise announcement by President George W. Bush last Friday that he was on the verge of releasing the "road map" to Israeli-Palestinian peace was seen as a "gift to the Jewish people" by one observer and a cause for concern by another.
"It wipes away the accusation that the war with Iraq is to save Israeli hegemony in the region," said Stephen Cohen, national scholar of the Israel Policy Forum. "The president did more with that speech than all the programs of the last two years to combat anti-Semitism."
But Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said there is a "lot of concern about the timing and the perception of the announcement on the one hand and the substance of the road map on the other."
The road map calls on the Palestinians to make government reforms, make an effort to end terrorist attacks and collect illegal weapons. Once progress is made, Israel would have to halt settlement activity in the territories. The three-phase plan envisions a provisional Palestinian state by the end of this year and a Palestinian state with clearly defined borders by 2005.
Bush said he would unveil the road map once the Palestinians selected a prime minister with "real authority." On Tuesday, the Palestinian parliament adopted legislation creating the new post of prime minister with the power to appoint cabinet ministers.
Legislators beat back an attempt Monday by Palestinian President Yasir Arafat to have veto power over those appointments.
After failing to convince lawmakers to change their minds, Arafat dropped his demand and the parliament approved the creation of the post by a vote of 69-1. Arafat is expected to name his deputy, Mahmoud Abbas, to the post. Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, has two weeks to create a cabinet.
Hoenlein said that although Bush promised that both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority would have input into the contents of the road map, "the fact is that in the document [it says] the Quartet could play a decisive role in determining compliance."
The Quartet is comprised of the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and the Russians.
‘We’ve seen from the current experience how reliable the UN and the EU have been in measuring compliance by Saddam Hussein, let alone their attitudes towards Israel," Hoenlein said.
Yoram Meital, chairman of the Department of Middle East Studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, noted that many in the region (particularly the Palestinians) had believed the road map would be presented as a finished product.
The government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said in recent weeks that it wanted to make about 100 changes.
Meital pointed out that Bush said he was "personally committed" to implementing the road map.
"I’m not sure if he was saying, ‘Don’t worry Israel, and we want to keep everything in our hands,’" Meital said.
Hoenlein was one of two dozen Jewish leaders who met with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice following Bush’s Rose Garden address.
"We had a chance for a fair and open discussion," he said of the off-the-record meeting. "She answered our concerns."
Among those concerns, Hoenlein said, is the "road map’s call for Israel to make concrete and irrevocable measures while getting nebulous commitments from the Palestinians."
"The Bush administration has assured us it will look for strict compliance," he said. "But the concern is that a dynamic has been created that will create circumstances that will have a life of their own."
Cohen said the fact that Bush said the "road map will set forth a sequence of steps" leading to the creation of a Palestinian state means that Israel will not be called upon to take steps in parallel with the Palestinians but will be able to wait to see how seriously the Palestinians act.
Dore Gold, an adviser to Sharon, said Bushís decision to make the statement last week must be seen "in a pre-conflict context with respect to Iraq."
British Prime Minister Tony Blair said as much in a later statement in which he said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is tied to the Iraqi crisis.
And he and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar both spoke of the road map again Sunday when they met with Bush in the Azores to map out war plans against Iraq. Bush, conspicuously, did not mention the issue.
That has only reinforced the belief that Bush was coaxed into delivering Friday’s statement by both Secretary of State Colin Powell, who stood at his side, and Blair, Bush’s strongest ally against Iraq. Blair’s Labor Party is divided over the war but united in its quest for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Cohen also noted the demeanor of the two men: Bush appeared to be having a "tooth pulled," Blair was beside himself with joy, punching the air and saying, "The most important thing is to show even-handedness in the Middle East."
But Cohen said the fact that Bush said "America will be the active partner of every party that seeks true peace" means that he is tilting toward Israel. The American position until now had been that of an "honest broker," one that tries to assist the parties dispassionately from afar, he said.
Meital said Bushís statement contained "a lot of ambiguities," providing encouraging statements to both the Palestinians and those in Europe, particularly Britain and France, "who would like to see the new Palestinian prime minister take bold steps."