Henry Siegman, director of the Council on Foreign Relations U.S./Middle East Project, says that President Bushs seeming endorsement of the so-called road map to peace between the Palestinians and Israelis raises serious questions about the U.S. commitment. He says that Bushs language in a statement on March 14, and Israels hard-line position, may combine to make the road map a non-starter.
Siegman, a senior fellow at the Council, also says he was surprised by how right-wing the new government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is, and noted that Israel has already raised extensive criticisms of the road map.
He made the comments in an interview with Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on March 14, 2003.
Q. Seemingly out of the blue, President Bush announced [on Friday, March 14] that the United States was now ready to make public the so-called road map to Middle East peace as soon as a new Palestinian prime minister is sworn in with sufficient powers. What do you make of it?
A. The presidents statement is not all that clear on certain important points. For example, it is not clear that the president was saying that the United States is committed to the essential points contained in the road map. And while it is understandable that he would want the Israelis and Palestinians to comment on the road map and perhaps make some adjustments to it based on those comments, it is not clear from the Presidents statement that a substantial revision of the road map is precluded.
Q. What are the key elements in the road map?
A. One of the key elements in the road map is that there be an immediate cessation of terror by the Palestinians and any further settlement activity by the Israelis. On this one point, the President was not very clear. He said in his statement: As progress is made toward peace, settlement activity in the occupied territories must end. Now the assumption among the drafters of the document, the European Union, the United States, Russia, and the United Nations, known as the quartet, is that a cessation of settlement activity does not depend on progress toward peace, it is a condition for progress toward peace. And the text of the road map itself shows no such condition.
Settlement activity would have to stop immediately, at the very outset of the process. You may recall that the Mitchell report [written by former Senator George Mitchell], which preceded the quartets road map, and was strongly endorsed by the United States also made that same demand, that settlement activity cease up front. And the reason the Mitchell plan never got off the ground was because the Palestinians demanded that the freeze on settlement activity be implemented, and the Sharon government position was not until the Palestinians implemented some of the things that Mitchell asked them to do.
The road map was meant to avoid an Alfonse-Gaston problem of we will do this, if you do this first, by saying these are things that have to happen immediately by both sides.
Q. Youre saying essentially that what the President said was somewhat at odds with what the document says?
Q. It will be interesting to see what the other parties say.
A. The Israeli government does not agree with the road map. The United States has already received proposals from Israels government, demanding all sorts of changes.
Q. Extensive changes?
A. Very extensive changes. For example, the road map authors understood that you cannot leave the question of compliance to one of the parties. Israel cannot be the arbiter in determining whether the two sides are living up to the agreement. The road map calls for an outside arbiter. Israel is not prepared to allow the quartet to make that determination. That goes to the heart of the whole process.
Q. Does Israel oppose the idea of immediately stopping settlements?
A. Yes, they also oppose stopping any settlement activity. Let me clarify. Israel insists it is not really creating new settlements, but is simply enlarging existing ones. But the road map as the previous Mitchell plan, rejects this distinction. It says it makes no difference. Settlement activity has to stop no matter what you call it, enlargement or new settlements. This, too, is a sticking point.
Q. Then the road map is a non-starter?
A. I am afraid so. One hesitates after the President says we are prepared to move with the road map. But in the same statement, he uses a formula that says to the Israeli prime minister that you dont have to stop enlarging settlements until there is progress toward a peace process.
Q. And thats different from the road map?
A. Yes. The road map says it must end immediately. The road map sees the cessation both of terror and of settlements as the necessary conditions for the beginning of a peace process.
Q. On the question of timing, the administration had earlier indicated it was not going to make public the road map until after the Iraq war. What happened?
A. This isnt entirely out of the blue. The State Department and Secretary of State Colin Powell personally have been arguing very strongly for such a statement. Powell has been pressing President Bush for such a statement, for an acceptance, an American signing off on the road map for some time. He pressed very hard for the president to do so in the [February 26] speech he made before the American Enterprise Institute. But others in the administration opposed this, the same folks who are so eager to attack Iraq.
Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and others sympathetic to their point of view do not have much sympathy for the Palestinians. They are the ones who have made the case that the war that Sharon is waging against Palestinian terror is really part of the larger war that America is waging against al-Qaeda and global terrorism. So they dont think that the United States should disagree vehemently with Sharons position that there cannot be a peace process until Palestinians have ended all terrorism. This must come first and nothing can happen until terrorism ends.
So they were not particularly anxious to see the President do this. My point is that the State Department has been pressing for this statement all along. The department also felt, after it lost out on the AEI speech, that they could get the President to make the statement if the Palestinians made the major reform of designating a new prime minister and reorganizing the government so that most of the cabinet ministers can be responsible directly to a prime minister and not Arafat. When this happened, Powell renewed his pitch to the president. He said now you must do it. I believe the president would not have agreed, even now, were it not for the fact that Tony Blair was in such desperate straits and he also said you must do it.
Q. How would you describe Abu Mazen, the prime minister-designate of the Palestinian Authority?
A. On the one hand, he is someone much closer to the positions that the United States would like the Palestinian Authority to take. He has said for some time that the Palestinian resort to violence, the intifadah, which followed the failure of the Camp David meetings in 2000, is a terrible mistake. It hurts the Palestinian cause. It has created tremendous damage and has produced no advantages. He has called for an end to violence. He wants a non-violent, diplomatic approach on the part of the Palestinians. In that respect, he is someone who the United States welcomes.
Q. What does it mean that Arafat still controls foreign policy and security?
A. Well, if Abu Mazen in fact takes over and serves as prime minister, he still appoints the full cabinet, including the foreign minister. On foreign policy and security, he has to get Arafat to sign off on basic decisions.
Q. Can the terrorist activities of Hamas and other groups be stopped?
A. Thats a tough one. Hamas, Jihad, and other terrorist groups made it very clear they do not intend to subject themselves to the authority of Abu Mazen, any more than they did Arafat. The question is whether Abu Mazen is prepared to face them down. That risks an internal civil war. The bigger question is whether Abu Mazen is willing to hold his own against Arafat. He does not have a reputation of being a very powerful personality, who asserts his prerogatives. He has said he is prepared to do it, if given authority by law. He has been given it now.
Q. Prior to the Israeli election, you were gloomy about the prospects for peace if Sharon was reelected, as everyone predicted. Did the results turn out as you feared?
A. Yes. But I did not think that Sharon, who won overwhelmingly, would appoint a government that is so right-wing.
Q. Sharon is opposed to stopping the enlargement of settlements?
A. That is correct.