President Bush has put the prestige and credibility of his administration on the line with a bold initiative to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Unfortunately, that "roadmap for peace" will likely lead to another dead end.
True, both Israel and the Palestinian Authority have accepted the roadmap in principle. But as anyone familiar with the long and bloody struggle between Israelis and Palestinians understands, the devil is always in the details. And in this case, the details are not very encouraging.
Israel's acceptance of the roadmap was highly conditional. Only after the Bush administration reversed its original position and agreed that there could be changes to the plan, did the Israeli government endorse it. By permitting changes, though, the United States has set the stage for endless demands and quibbling by both sides. And even with Washington's concession, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's cabinet approved the roadmap by a bare majority vote following a rancorous debate. That bitter division highlights the extent of dissension within Israel's political elite.
The initial reaction in the Palestinian community was even worse. The roadmap was greeted with an upsurge of suicide bombings. And matters have not improved all that much in recent weeks.
There are admittedly some faint reasons for hope. Sharon shocked his supporters by conceding that the continuing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza was not healthy for Israel. The new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, conceded that negotiations must consist of give and take -- a refreshing change from Yasser Arafat's philosophy of "take and take." But, at best, this is merely the dawn of wisdom on both sides -- and we cannot even be certain yet that it is not a false dawn.
Before we become too optimistic about the roadmap's prospects, we should remember that every U.S. administration since Lyndon Johnson's has tried to be the architect of an Israeli-Palestinian accord. All have failed.
Indeed, there is a troubling sense of deja vu with regard to the current initiative. President Bush's father attempted to parlay America's military triumph in the first Persian Gulf War into a diplomatic breakthrough on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Then, as now, Washington's initiative was motivated, at least in part, by a desire to placate Arab populations who were none too happy about the U.S. military assault on a Muslim nation. It is a sobering reminder that the elder Bush's peace initiative fizzled. Perhaps his son will fare better, but that is not the way to bet.
Proponents of the roadmap argue that it does no harm to at least try to orchestrate a peace accord. But such conventional wisdom ignores an important point. High-profile U.S. initiatives have established a consistent pattern of raising hopes to unrealistic levels and then seeing those hopes dashed. The resulting disillusionment leads to a hardening of positions by both sides and an escalation of violence.
That dangerous cycle occurred most recently with President Clinton's push for peace at Camp David. The failure of those negotiations led to Israeli voters replacing the moderate Ehud Barak with the hardliner Ariel Sharon. On the Palestinian side, it led to the horrific campaign of suicide bombings.
The main obstacle to peace is the inability of Israeli and Palestinian moderates to rein in the extremists. At some point, an Israeli government will have to compel the militant settlers on the West Bank to leave. Without that concession, there is no hope of a durable accord with the Palestinians. For their part, the Palestinians must renounce terrorism and treat the tactic of suicide bombing as the anathema it is. Until the members of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other extremist organizations become pariahs, the confrontation with Israel will never abate.
Israelis and Palestinians will end their bloody struggle when, and only when, they conclude that they can gain more from negotiations and compromise than they can from confrontation and violence. At that point, they can achieve peace without a high-profile U.S. role. Until then, no amount of creative diplomacy, prodding, or bribery by the United States will produce a breakthrough.