Mission accomplished?

A lot has changed, and nothing has changed, since the roadmap was introduced five years ago (April 30, 2003).

The Israeli and Palestinian leaders who accepted this peace plan back then, Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat, are no longer on the scene. Both were strong and willful personalities, but neither one really believed in a genuine Israeli-Palestinian peace, hence they approached the roadmap idea defensively. They have been replaced by Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), both of whom do believe in peace but are probably too weak to do anything about it. Indeed, so weak is Abbas that he has allowed Hamas, which rejects the roadmap, to take over the Gaza Strip.

The order of the roadmap has changed too. Rather than following the logic of the roadmap’s sequencing and implementing phase I (confidence-building) prior to phase III (final status negotiations), Israel and Palestine are now committed to implementing I and III simultaneously. Whatever peace or framework agreement emerges from phase III negotiations will now be termed a "shelf agreement" and its realization will be delayed until phase I issues (security, outposts, etc.) are resolved. It is not at all clear that a shelf agreement is a viable concept. In any case, progress to date on both phase I and phase III is unimpressive.

The regional environment is also different from five years ago. Iran’s looming hegemonic aspirations, the American fiasco in Iraq and a dangerous stalemate in Lebanon have combined to drive Israel’s main Sunni Arab neighbors seemingly to seek a more active role in advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace and rebuffing Iran. Yet the Saudis, Egyptians and Jordanians are more talk than action: they boost the Arab peace initiative, and the Egyptians and Saudis dialogue with Hamas and the PLO, but thus far with little positive effect. And when Israel contemplates talking to Syria in order to edge it out of the Iranian orbit, they take their distance.

Turning to the United States, after seven years of doing precious little about the conflict and nearly five years of responsibility for a roadmap to nowhere, the Bush administration convened the Annapolis conference five months ago to re-launch that roadmap more energetically. Sadly, what we have seen since in terms of US commitment to generating a credible Israeli-Palestinian peace process is only slightly less pathetic than before Annapolis. To be sure, there are American generals and a British former prime minister "on the ground", Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visits monthly, and President George W. Bush will soon arrive for his second visit. But there is no peace team, there are no heavy pressures and Washington’s effort doesn’t begin to compensate for the acute political shortcomings in Jerusalem and Ramallah.

Yet how could it? No US administration can handle more than one serious Middle East enterprise at any one time. In the past five years, the Bush administration has prioritized Iraq, Iran and regional democratization over Israeli-Palestinian peace. Even if the administration were not so disastrously inept at dealing with those projects, it still would not have the energies left to make a serious impression on us Israelis and Palestinians beyond the impact of Bush’s single solid contribution: making a two-state solution official American policy. Nor did the creation of the Quartet (the US, UN, EU and Russia) to sponsor and oversee the roadmap disguise this basic reality. Any observer with eyes in his or her head knew this from the start of the roadmap and behaved accordingly.

A few days ago, as I was contemplating what to write in this article, a headline in the online Washington Post caught my eye: "Five years, two words, no letup". Aha, I said to myself, in Washington too they’re reassessing the roadmap (which is often spelled road map) five years later. I clicked on the headline, only to discover that the event being commemorated was Bush’s notorious "mission accomplished" statement regarding Iraq, made on board an aircraft carrier five years ago.

That was a statement of ignorance. We could be charitable and assume the roadmap, too, was the product of ignorance. More likely, though, from the standpoint of Washington, Jerusalem and Ramallah, the roadmap has been an exercise in cynicism: keeping the parties busy enough to avoid a declaration of out-and-out failure while all three of their leaders are either too uninterested or too weak to make a difference. Meanwhile, the clock is still ticking on a two-state solution.