The road map, the international plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace, has been dusted off and is once again the principal initiative being pursued by Israel with the Palestinians: even though much skepticism surrounds it.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made the announcement last weekend after meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
"I’m sticking to my position that the diplomatic process with the Palestinians should continue in accordance with the road map," he said.
That position was repeated several times this week to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas when he met on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly here with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and President George W. Bush. As diplomats talked here, Israel prepared to withdraw the last of its troops from Lebanon just hours before the start of the Jewish High Holy Days Friday night. Israeli troops, who have slowly been withdrawing from Lebanon since 34 days of fighting with Hezbollah ended Aug. 14, have been searching for Hezbollah’s bunkers, tunnels and weapons storage depots in an effort to destroy them and the thousands of missiles that remain poised along Israel’s northern border.
Ephraim Sneh, Israel’s former defense minister and now a senior adviser to Defense Minister Amir Peretz, told a meeting of the Israel Policy Forum here that during the war Israel destroyed 90 percent of Hezbollah’s 1,000 long-range missiles. He said Hezbollah fired about 4,000 short-range missiles and that Israel destroyed another 200. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah announced plans to hold a victory rally after all Israeli troops leave Lebanon. But Livni told reporters that he has little to celebrate because he is "more weak now and people … [in Lebanon] understand Hezbollah is a burden and not an asset and that it does not represent Lebanon’s interests. … The situation in Lebanon is not easy. This was supposed to be a great tourist season in Lebanon with 1.5 million tourists."
But much of the talk at the UN was about renewing Palestinian peace talks that were derailed after the Palestinian people in January elected Hamas to run their government. Hamas is considered by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union to be a terrorist organization.
In his farewell speech to the 61st General Assembly after two five-year terms as secretary-general of the UN, Kofi Annan singled out the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one of the most important to resolve.
"No other conflict carries such a powerful symbolic and emotional charge among people far removed from the battlefield," he said. "As long as the Palestinians live under occupation, exposed to daily frustration and humiliation; as long as Israelis are blown up in buses or in dance-halls; so long will passions everywhere be inflamed."
Annan warned that the UN’s own credibility would suffer as long as the conflict continued, saying: "On one side, supporters of Israel feel that it is harshly judged by standards that are not applied to its enemies. And too often this is true, particularly in some UN bodies. On the other side, people are outraged by the disproportionate use of force against Palestinians and by Israel’s continued occupation and confiscation of Arab land."
But a lot of the talk on the sidelines was about the road map and Hamas.
Ronny Sofer, writing in the online YNet News, said Olmert "went back to the road map because it may provide him with a new agenda for his government. … The road map suddenly looks like the horizon of a new day, much brighter than the current darkness faced by Israel’s prime minister."
The initiative that Olmert ran on in last March’s election, a withdrawal of all West Bank settlers to three main settlement blocs, was abandoned after the Hezbollah War because the Israeli public no longer supported it.
But Sofer pointed out that the road map is "like clutching to a straw" because neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians believe it will "cure this bloody conflict."
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said the road map became the game plan because Israeli leaders realized "you can"t do something with nothing."
"When there is a vacuum, it opens the door to other actors," he continued. "They saw what happened when there was nothing there. That led to the road map. So rather than having a vacuum, they are dusting it off. They don’t think it can be implemented [and aren’t] interested in its terms, but it is better than having nothing."
Livni, the Israeli foreign minister, said as much when she told reporters here Monday that Israel and the United States have a mutual goal of a two-state solution.
"We are trying to find out the best way to advance with the understanding that stagnation is not policy," she said.
The road map, a phased approach to Palestinian statehood, calls in part for the Palestinian Authority to abandon the use of violence and to dismantle armed groups, while Israel must end settlement activity and withdraw from illegal outposts.
Shlomo Aronson, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said that in returning to the road map, Olmert was also trying to head off any softening of the European position toward Hamas. Hamas has been toying with the possibility of a national unity government with its chief rival, Abbas’ Fatah Party, and there were hints that the Europeans might recognize it. Abbas proposed it believing it would open the door to millions of dollars in Western aid money that was cut-off when Hamas assumed power in March.
"What you have to do is to nail down Abu Mazen [Abbas’ nickname] and the more moderate elements of the Palestinians to an acceptance of the road map and the [prior] agreements, starting with Oslo, and the active fighting of the terrorists," Aronson said. Noting that Hamas is weakening because of its failure to govern, Aronson said the West needs to give Abbas "another reason not to create a government of national unity. There would be no reason to talk to him if Hamas becomes his boss. … This is one more step to eliminating Hamas."
Livni, Rice and Bush all made clear to Abbas here this week that a unity government is a non-starter as long as Hamas does not recognize Israel, abide by previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements, and renounce violence.
Steinberg, the political science professor, said Abbas cannot speak for Hamas and he questioned whether Hamas is able to speak with one voice.
"There are so many Palestinian voices and even within Hamas positions are contradictory," he said.
There were media reports this week that Khalid Meshal, the exiled Hamas leader living in Syria, had threatened the life of Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader in Gaza, should he agree to a unity government with Fatah. But in a speech Wednesday, Haniyeh appeared to end all doubts when he flatly rejected the Quartet’s "conditions" for resuming financial aid.
"Conditions are being imposed on the Palestinian people," he was quoted as saying. "They want us to condemn the resistance and that we recognize [international] agreements. We are sticking to the national reconciliation document that does not recognize the legality of the occupation and reaffirms the legality of the resistance."