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Last update - 20:36 24/06/2003

Background / Bush's road map: Doomed to Oslo's fate?

By Bradley Burston, Haaretz Correspondent

It has been called the "most dangerous document for the Jews since Wannsee" - Nazi Germany's 1942 outline for the annihilation of European Jewry. It has also been called the last, best hope for peace in the Middle East.

For months, the document was kept under wraps. But in a sudden push in which the once-diffident George W. Bush has adopted it as his dream, and Israeli hardliners as their worst nightmare - the road map is finally here.

As proponents and critics wrangle over whether the peace plan affords Israelis a handle on a secure future, or a new threat of a Final Solution, it is still the rare resident of the Holy Land who can delineate between the road map and its famously failed predecessor, the 1993 Oslo accords.

How does it differ in substance and potential from the doomed Israel-PLO peace deals of the 1990s? Can the new, wary blueprint succeed where the wide-eyed optimism of Oslo failed?

In specifics, the road map has its roots in the abrupt collapse of the peace process in the early going of the current Palestinian uprising, and the consequent desire of the new plan's many authors to avoid the pitfalls that plagued and ultimately scuttled Oslo.

"The essence of the road map lies in the lessons learned from the intifada, the lessons learned by both the Israelis and the Palestinians," says Haaretz commentator Akiva Eldar, in a reference to the years of bloodshed that erupted in the early fall of 2000.

"For Israel, the road map spells out and emphasizes security issues to a much greater extent than did Oslo. There are very detailed, specific security demands in the road map text, that derive directly from the experience of the intifada, a 'road map for security' that is lacking in the Oslo accords. There is also the demand for reforms in the Palestinian Authority, which the Oslo text did not foresee, of course.

"For the Palestinians, who have lost all trust that the Oslo process would bring them a state, separation from Israel, or the end of the occupation, there is a much clearer sequence, in timetables, expressly aimed at bringing about end of the Israeli occupation."

Oslo's Declaration of Principles, signed in September, 1993 called for a five-year transitional period during which a final status agreement was to have been negotiated and, once sealed, implemented.

The final shape of a future solution was limned in indirect and malleable terms aimed at deflecting opposition from hardliners on both sides.

In part, the road map attempts to break new ground by citing and spelling out terms that were considered too far-reaching and politically volatile for Israeli and Palestinian ears during the Oslo period, Eldar argues.

Throughout, the language of the road map is more direct, the demands on the two sides markedly tougher.

The latter is a reflection of perhaps the bedrock difference between Oslo and the road map: the fact that the Oslo accords were bilateral agreements - launched in secret by the Israelis and the Palestinians without the knowledge of their American and European allies - while the road map is in effect an imposed peace process, founded and driven in concert by Washington, Moscow, the European Union and the United Nations.

The stronger language - and the lack of implicit trust in the good will and good faith of the two parties - is evident in nearly every clause of the road map. "Non-compliance with obligations will impede progress," warns the text's preamble.

In the road map's initial phase, the Palestinians must "undertake visible efforts on the ground to arrest, disrupt, and restrain individuals and groups conducting and planning violent attacks on Israelis anywhere."

Rebuilt and "refocused" PA forces must then begin "sustained, targeted and effective operations aimed at confronting all those engaged in terror and dismantlement of terrorist capabilities and infrastructure. This includes commencing confiscation of illegal weapons and consolidation of security authority, free of association with terror and corruption."

Israel, meanwhile, is enjoined from all "actions undermining trust, including deportations, attacks on civilians; confiscation and/or demolition of Palestinian homes and property, as a punitive measure or to facilitate Israeli constructions," including the destruction of Palestinian institutions and infrastructure.

Most significantly, where Oslo neither mentioned an independent Palestine, nor gave a detailed timeline for implementation, the road map specifies a permanent agreement and sequence of measures focused on establishment of a Palestinian state by the year 2005.

Among provisions introduced in the road map are:

Explicit mention of curbs on Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Under the road map, Israel "immediately dismantles settlement outposts erected since March 2001" and will freeze "all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements)" - the latter a demand that goes beyond decades of American anti-settlement pressure.

Eldar notes that late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin opposed the insertion of the words "settlement freeze" into the text of the Oslo agreements, even though an effective freeze on new settlement construction was part of the understandings that led to the signing of the initial Oslo Declaration of Principles in 1993.

Specific steps that Palestinians must follow to put "an unequivocal end to violence and terrorism and undertake visible efforts on the ground to arrest, disrupt, and restrain individuals and groups conducting and planning violent attacks on Israelis anywhere," as well as halting all institutional incitement within the Palestinian Authority.

Detailed and repeated discussion of Palestinian statehood. The text mandates a "two-state solution," with an "independent, viable, sovereign Palestinian state living in peace and security alongside Israel."

At the time that Oslo was being drafted, Israeli leaders had not yet reconciled themselves to an independent Palestinians state. Then-foreign minister Shimon Peres "spoke to Arafat at the time over the model of a Palestinian confederation with Jordan," Eldar says.

Indications as to the future borders of Israel and an independent Palestine. Although the text refrains from specifics, there are clear hints that it views the future Palestinian state as encompassing the lion's share of the West Bank and Gaza, as in the reference to ending "the occupation that began in 1967," when Israel captured the territories in the Six Day War.

The passage, in the road map's preamble, goes on to cite as a reference the early 2002 Saudi initiative, a proposal that spoke of full recognition and normalization of ties with the entire Arab world, at the price of return to borders close to the bare-bones pre-1967 lines, with possible land exchanges as compensation for changes in the Green Line route.

Third-party monitoring mechanisms to access, and presumably, prod, the progress of implementation.

In the end, the "imposed settlement" nature of the road map may be the crucial determinant of its chances for fruition.

The international stake in the success of the road map is much more pronounced than in the case of Oslo, as is foreign willingness for direct involvement, monitoring, and pressure on the sides for progress.

So direct is the sponsorship of the road map, that the American president is mentioned by name in its second sentence: "The destination is a final and comprehensive settlement of the Israel-Palestinian conflict by 2005, as presented in President Bush's speech of June 24, and welcomed by the EU, Russia and the UN in the 15 July and 17 September Quartet Ministerial statements."

But international involvement can be a double-edged sword.

Israeli governments of all political stripes have traditionally and vociferously rejected efforts at "internationalizing" the conflict. Assuming that current spirals of violence can subside long enough to enable the road map to leave square one - by no means a safe bet - Israel's willingness to accept international monitoring and perhaps a future peace-keeping force could be the decisive variable in the success or failure of the peace plan.

The guiding principle of Oslo and its claim to landmark status, were the first open talks between Israel and its once-arch foe the Palestine Liberation Organization, Eldar remarks. But the initial optimism and good feeling eroded, as timetables were honored only in the breach and implementation on both sides proved slipshod.

"Israel granted a very 'generous' interpretation to its Oslo promise to avoid 'prejudicing' the final result by expanding settlements, and for their part, the Authority gave a very 'light' interpretation to its promises to fight Hamas, violence, and incitement.

"These were violations of the Oslo accords. But there was no mechanism of arbitration at the time, no continuous involvement of a third party."

The Clinton administration, which was to preside over the demise of Oslo, became directly involved only in the midst of the process, and even then its role was largely limited to troubleshooting. Now, however, with the Quartet accompanying the process at every stage, "that ongoing third-party involvement over both wording and implementation of agreements finally exists."

The absolute mutual lack of trust wrought by the violence means that mediation alone is unlikely to be enough, Eldar believes. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and others have suggested that a third-party peacekeeping force will be needed to ensure that disengagement of Israeli and Palestinian forces will be unavoidable.

For the road map to work, the sides will need to make decisions that they are presently hesitant to approach, Eldar argues. "At this point, the whole subject of interim agreements is dead. Israel will need to pull out of the territories and the Palestinians will have to outlaw Hamas. The problems of terror and occupation are indivisible. They must be solved simultaneously. If you solve one without the other, you've solved nothing."

But the sides alone cannot take the steps required to solve those problems, he adds. "Israel can't end the occupation before the terror ends, and the Palestinians can't end the terror before the occupation ends.

In the end, can Israel turn its back on decades of official resistance to foreign intervention? Not with ease. "The tradition is that 'We don't allow foreigners to intervene,'" Eldar says.

"Down through the years, all Israeli governments have opposed proposals for an international force of inspectors or monitors, maintaining that it saps Israel's sovereignty, and restricts its freedom to operate militarily, not to mention restricting the freedom of the settlers to do what they want."

Certainly, the Sharon government as presently constituted, with its right and ultra-right flank, is in no position to accept the provisions of the road map. But the Labor Party is on record as backing the peace plan, and would step in with all haste if Sharon's hardline coalition partners deserted him.

One possibility is that Israel will accept a U.S.-staffed force, or a force made up of NATO personnel - neither overtly identified with the UN, which has been Israel's most dependable diplomatic bugbear from 1967 on.

But can Israel stand by its blanket opposition to international inspection and still expect the road map to succeed?

"No. In no way, shape or form," Eldar stresses. "There's a Catch 22 operating: As long as Israel remains in the territories, the Palestinians cannot accept security responsibility, because that makes them collaborators. But as long as there is violence and they refrain from accepting responsibility, Israel stays where it is.

"Therefore, someone has to break this vicious circle - and that can only mean a third party."

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