The Bulldozer and the Road Map

Avi Shlaim

International Herald Tribune, 16 May 2003

In the poem “The Road Not Taken,” Robert Frost describes two roads that diverged in the yellow wood and the difficulty he experienced in deciding which one to take. In the end he chose the one that perhaps had the better claim because it was grassy and wanted wear but he agonised, knowing that his choice made all the difference.

Like the narrator of the poem, Palestinians and Israelis face a fork in the wood -- and the road they choose to take will make all the difference.

Continuing along the road they have been travelling for the last two and a half years will bring further conflict, suffering, death and destruction. The other option is to follow the “road map” devised by the United States, the United Nations, Russia and the European Union, which promises to lead to an independent Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel by 2005.

The road map is overwhelmingly favorable to Israel and represents a victory for the security hawks. It calls on the Palestinians to end the violence before progress is made on the political front. Israel is not expected to withdraw its military forces or to impose a freeze on settlements until Palestinian actions have been verified. The plan is not an externally imposed solution but a guide to a negotiated settlement. It bears the hallmarks of the most pro-Israeli White House in American history.

Most Palestinians welcomed the road map. A day before it was officially presented, Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, was installed as prime minister at the head of a reform-minded cabinet that sidelined Yasser Arafat. Abu Mazen, who had been critical of the intifada from the beginning, immediately and unambiguously committed his government to the implementation of the road map. His main problem is opposition from the militant organizations Hamas and Islamic Jihad, whose leaders said they would continue the violence until Israel ends its occupation.

In Israel, by contrast, it is the government, led by the Likud Party, that feels threatened by the road map. Likud’s ideology of a Greater Israel is simply incompatible with a genuine two-state solution. The construction of settlements on the West Bank and the destruction of the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority have been the two key elements in Likud’s strategy for undermining the two-state solution.

The Israeli government tried to block the road map from the very beginning. It won from the Americans three delays in issuing it and submitted more than a hundred amendments. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s aim is to preserve the status quo, not to change it.

Sharon has no real record of supporting negotiated settlements with any of Israel’s neighbors. Since Likud first came to power in 1977, Sharon put all his weight behind the effort to transform the idea of Greater Israel into a reality by building more and more settlements on the West Bank. It was not for nothing that he was nicknamed “the bulldozer.” In his first two years as prime minister, Sharon built 34 new settlement outposts.

While Sharon is unlikely to abandon his lifelong struggle against a viable Palestinian state, his tactics have become more sophisticated. He has repeatedly stated that he would accept a Palestinian state and that for the sake of peace he is prepared to make painful concessions. What he envisages, however, is an emasculated and demilitarized Palestinian entity built on less than half of the land of the occupied territories, with Israel in control of its borders, airspace and water resources. This is a recipe for a ghetto, not for a free country.

Sharon’s hidden design is to derail the diplomatic process initiated by the United States. He wants to make the final status settlement contingent on a list of conditions so long that settlement will never be reached.

The road map as it stands is considered by Sharon as tainted by the influence of the European Union, which he holds in utter contempt. He knows that Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain is genuinely committed to the road map and he is consequently determined to neutralize Blair’s influence. Deep down Sharon believes that President George W. Bush is only paying lip service to Blair’s views.

In the aftermath of the war with Iraq, the Palestinian question is once again a key issue in Middle East politics. Once again we are at the crossroads. There is only one man on earth with sufficient power to force the bulldozer down the road he does not want to take: the president of the United States. It remains to be seen, however, whether Bush will have the courage to save Israel from the folly of its own government.