The road ahead is clear, but will George W. Bush take it?

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Here is what we know: we know that almost three-fourths of Israelis want the full evacuation of the settlements NOW. We know that two-thirds of Israeli settlers are willing to leave their settlements if adequately compensated.

We know that Palestinians can stop violence against Israel — they have done it before, under Barak for instance, when a whole year went by and not a single Israeli was killed in an attack. And we know that when a strong Palestinian Authority is in place, while the prospect for an end to the conflict is within sight, Palestinians turn away from violence. [1]

We know that Palestinians and Israelis can build bridges — they have built them before, and they want to build them again.

We know that they can reach a compromise: in Taba, in January 2001, just a few days before the elections that were to make Ariel Sharon Prime Minister, the Palestinian and Israeli negotiating delegations issued a joint statement in which they said in part, “the two sides declare that they have never been closer to reaching an agreement and it is thus our shared belief that the remaining gaps could be bridged with the resumption of negotiations following the Israeli elections.” [2]

We know that the Arab countries are tired of their war with Israel and that they are willing to establish full and normal relations with the Jewish state. Last year, when they met in Beirut, they issued a statement that said that once a just and mutually acceptable settlement between the Palestinians and the Israelis is reached, the Arab countries would “consider the Arab-Israeli conflict ended, and enter into a peace agreement with Israel, and provide security for all the states of the region,” and that they would “establish normal relations with Israel in the context of this comprehensive peace.” [3]

We know that Hamas and Islamic Jihad are not interested in moving the peace process forward and that their aim is not a happy and peaceful co-existence with Israel. We also know that their strategy of confronting Sharon has not cowed the Israeli public into rejecting Sharon nor has it forced Israel to withdraw, as Hezbollah’s attacks on the Israeli army forced the Israelis to evacuate after twenty years in Southern Lebanon. Instead, it has given Ariel Sharon the very thing he has thrived on: an excuse to avoid serious political negotiations and cover to continue building settlements — and worse, new a wall that is quietly swallowing swaths of Palestinian lands.

We know that Ariel Sharon and his Likud party are also not interested in moving the peace process forward. At best, they intend to tolerate a collection of Palestinian Bantustans, with token political sovereignty and no independent economy (indeed, a central tenet of the Likud is that there shall be “no Palestinian state West of the Jordan [River]”), and at worst they are willing to begin transferring Palestinian populations out of the Occupied Territories, as Israel’s minister of tourism is now calling for in his tour of the US Bible Belt.

We also know that Ariel Sharon’s strategy of attacking the Palestinian Authority, assassinating Hamas leaders, and collectively punishing Palestinian populations, has failed utterly to bring about security to the Israelis. Indeed, all but one of the ninety two suicide bombings since the start of this Intifada two and a half years ago have taken place under Ariel Sharon’s watch. [4]

As for the so-called “Road Map”, we know that the Palestinian Authority, under the new leadership of Prime Minister Abu-Mazen, has officially accepted it without reservations. By contrast, Ariel Sharon has issued more than one hundred objections and has so far fundamentally rejected it by insisting that violence must stop before proceeding with talks (the very deadlock the map was designed to unlock), and has announced as off the negotiating table the issue of the Palestinians’ right of return, an issue the Map explicitly accepts as legitimate for compromise at later stages.

Now for the big unknown: Will George W. Bush push Ariel Sharon to accept the map and to begin its implementation? Will he emulate his father and exert some of his own massive domestic “political capital”?

Those who say that George W. Bush should not risk political suicide by emulating his father forget two basic facts about the 1992 presidential runoff: first, George Bush senior was running against one of the biggest cheerleaders of Israel at the time, Bill Clinton, among whose natural constituency anyway was indeed the Jewish vote; and second, even though George Bush senior was no darling of the Republican base, let alone the poster boy of the far right, and he was nevertheless still able to win Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, and even Florida.[5]

The question then is: what has George W. Bush to risk by pushing Ariel Sharon to accept the Road Map? What can the right-wing pro-Israel bloc do? Will they really mete out severe political punishment to the most pro-Israel president since Harry Truman? And would the Christian Right really sacrifice its prodigal son for the sake of pleasing Sharon?

And what if George Bush’s opponent ended up being Joseph Lieberman? How much can George W. Bush count on the Jewish vote then to deliver Florida for him anyway, lest there be a recount?

George W. Bush has a chance to do something truly great for a change. The political risks are paltry compared to the potentially monumental gains. But will he do it? And if not, why not?

Notes:

[1] ‘Suicide and Other Bombing Attacks in Israel Since the Declaration of Principles’ — http://www.mfa.gov.il/mfa/go.asp?MFAH0i5d0

[2] Joint Statement, signed by Ehud Barak’s negotiating team, Taba, Egypt, January 27, 2001 — http://www.mfa.gov.il/mfa/go.asp?MFAH0j7o0

[3] ‘Arab Peace Initiative: full text’, March 28, 2002 — http://www.guardian.co.uk/Print/0,3858,4383912,00.html

[4] ‘Suicide and Other Bombing Attacks in Israel Since the Declaration of Principles’ — http://www.mfa.gov.il/mfa/go.asp?MFAH0i5d0

[5] 1992 election results: http://www.multied.com/elections/1992state.html

2000 election results: http://www.multied.com/elections/2000map.html

Mr. Ahmed Bouzid is President of Palestine Media Watch and author of “Framing the struggle.” He contributed above article to Media Monitors Network (MMN) from Pennsylvania, USA.

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