ISRAEL-PALESTINE: The wrong game
Yossi Alpher

The road map has aged well. Its prescription for a three-stage return to an Israeli-Palestinian peace process is probably more relevant now, with the parties entering a ceasefire and resuming close contacts, than it was on April 30, 2003, when it was first published. Like Oslo, Geneva and other peace plans, it has major flaws. But they loom no larger today than they did originally.

Yet all parties concerned should avoid pushing for an active return to the road map. To do so at this juncture would be detrimental to any hope of progress.

The immediate reason for this assertion is the problematic nature of the obligations imposed on the two sides in phase I of the road map. A second important reason is the counterproductive nature of phase II. The most important reason has to do with the basic positions of the two leaders, Mahmoud Abbas and Ariel Sharon, concerning phase III.

We are `in` phase I, and in some ways - e.g., Palestinian constitutional and financial reform - have been for 18 months. In recent weeks the beginnings of a ceasefire have taken hold, the new Palestinian leadership has renounced violence and terrorism, `free, fair and open elections` have been held and security cooperation resumed, and progress is being made toward release of prisoners and withdrawal from territory by Israel - all phase I obligations.

But PLO/PA leader Abbas is not likely to fulfill the phase I demand that he dismantle the terrorist infrastructure and collect weaponry; he seeks to co-opt rather than confront the Palestinian terrorist organizations. In parallel PM Sharon is not about to dismantle the West Bank settlement outposts, as phase I mandates; he prefers to dismantle entire settlements, in Gaza and the northern West Bank. Neither leader is carrying out all his phase I obligations, yet both are moving in a positive direction. To demand of them full compliance with phase I at this point would be foolish. So phase I must be amended.

Phase II, `an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders`, is a mistake. It is superfluous. A state with provisional borders is virtually without precedent in international relations. While the road map dictates that this strange phase last just six months, there are strong indications that this is where Sharon would like to stop the process - which explains why Abbas is so suspicious of phase II. If there is going to be a peace process there is no reason why the two sides cannot move from phase I to phase III and resume final status negotiations. Phase II should be deleted.

Yet it is doubtful there will be a phase III peace process under Sharon and Abbas. The former is deeply suspicious of all peace agreements with Arabs, and will not offer Palestinians the territory they need in the West Bank and Jerusalem for a viable state. The latter clings to positions on the right of return that are anathema to the Israeli public, which views them as antithetical to the spirit of a genuine two state solution.

So hostile to phase III of the road map is Sharon that he adopted a policy of unilateral disengagement at least in part to neutralize it. To actively reimpose the road map framework on Sharon now is to risk sabotaging disengagement. And murky and problematic as Sharon`s ultimate objectives are, the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank six months from now is a goal worth pursuing. Indeed, it is the only game in town. To the extent it can be coordinated between the two sides, with Egyptian and other international support, so much the better.

Supporters of phase III want to reimpose the road map now so as to ensure that disengagement does not become a dead end with regard to the West Bank - that it leads us in the right direction. Their motives are understandable, but they are advised to slow down, be patient and recognize the immense historical importance of the current step of dismantling settlements. Under the best of circumstances the next six to nine months will witness a successful but extremely traumatic Israeli withdrawal, a long process of genuinely ending Palestinian violence, and several Palestinian elections and key reforms such as reorganizing the security services. By the time these steps have rebuilt a modicum of bilateral confidence we will almost certainly be plunged into Israeli elections, about a year from now.

In other words it will be close to 18 months before the next, post-disengagement Israeli government is in place and fully functioning in Jerusalem. This is the real timetable that confronts us, not that of the road map, which was supposed to have been completed this year. If all these steps do succeed, the Israeli public will in any case support a government that opts for a peace process or for an additional phase of disengagement on the West Bank, either of which constitutes welcome movement in the right direction.

Meanwhile all parties concerned can continue to pay lip service to the road map. That is harmless. And there is plenty of room for US, EU and Egyptian carrots and sticks to ensure that Sharon releases prisoners and removes roadblocks and Abbas ends the violence and cooperates with disengagement.

I, like many Israelis and Palestinians, hunger for a peace process that leads to a two-state solution. In recent years when there was no disengagement plan (and no peace process), I consistently advocated high-level US involvement and pressure. But right now that is the wrong game.

Yossi Alpher is a former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former senior advisor to Prime Minister Barak. Article courtesy of Bitterlemons.org.