Siegman: The Middle East ’Road Map’ Has Collapsed

September 8, 2003 6:20 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Henry Siegman, the Council on Foreign Relations’ foremost expert on Palestinian-Israeli relations, says that the Middle East road map for peace now seems dead, and he blames Israel and the United States for its demise. He says that Mahmoud Abbas, who resigned as Palestinian prime minister on September 6, “counted on the United States to put pressure on Israel to change the situation on the ground”--but it failed to materialize. As for Abbas’ successor, Ahmed Qurei, he is “much less likely than Abbas to challenge” Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, Siegman says.

Siegman, the director of the Council’s U.S./Middle East Project, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on September 8, 2003.

Is the Middle East road map to peace dead?

Yes. The road map never really gained traction to begin with, and the prospects for the road map were poor indeed from the outset. Mahmoud Abbas [also known as Abu Mazen] had very little political support among Palestinians. He had no political base of his own within Palestinian society, and his appointment was forced on Yasir Arafat [by the United States]. Arafat did not want him. This immediately assured tension between the two— indeed, ill will between the two. And Arafat was out to prove that this man can’t deliver and that no one can deliver unless he, Arafat, is very much at the heart of the process. So it was well understood by the United States and Israel from the outset that Abu Mazen had no chance of succeeding, unless— and there are two elements to this “unless.”

What was the first element?

The first was that he could not succeed unless Israel strengthened him, empowered him by making changes on the ground that improved the lives of the Palestinian people who are living under siege and total paralysis in their daily lives. It was clear that without such changes, which Mahmoud Abbas could have taken credit for and could say, “If you follow my path of a non-violent, diplomatic, political process, it achieves results”--without that, he didn’t stand a chance. However, Israel wasn’t about to make these concessions. Or, specifically, [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon and his right-wing government were not about to make these concessions.

What is the second “unless?”

The second was that Abbas could not succeed unless the United States put effective pressure on Israel to abide by the requirements of the road map and to give Abbas what he needed to be able to counter the influence of Arafat and to face down the Islamic fundamentalists— Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and so on. Unfortunately, the United States never did that.

Do you blame Israel for the collapse of the road map?

The real reason for the road map not producing anything and not getting off the ground lies both with Israel and the United States. Abbas knew that Israel would not on its own give him what he needed. But he counted on the United States to pressure Israel to change the situation on the ground. And he had a commitment from the United States that it would do that. He had that commitment directly from President Bush.

President Bush in June seemed engaged in the Mideast peace process. What happened over the summer that caused him to lose interest in the road map?

President Bush became very enthusiastic about the road map and about the peace process, particularly when compared to his earlier deep reluctance to get involved. The reason he finally changed his views on the road map and the peace process, and on his own role in it, was essentially the euphoria he experienced in the immediate aftermath of the defeat of Iraq. At that point, he believed anything was possible. However, as things in Iraq got worse— and he was distracted by events there— and as the election [campaign] in the United States [got under way], he did not put any pressure on Israel. What little he said was so muted that, far from convincing Sharon that he must move, he convinced him that he could get away without doing very much or without doing anything.

How significant to the collapse of the road map was the August 19 suicide bombing of a bus in Jerusalem that killed many Israelis?

That, of course, was very important. The reason there was so much hope for the peace process was that, despite Abbas’ inability to confront Hamas by force, Hamas and Jihad declared a unilateral hudna or ceasefire, and there were no suicide bombings on the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, or other Israeli towns. That made an immense difference in the lives of Israelis. There wasn’t heavy-handed pressure on Abbas to take on Hamas because he was able to say, “Listen, things are quiet. Israelis are not being killed on the streets of their towns and cities, so let’s keep this hudna going.” That argument disappeared the moment that bus was blown up. Of course, Palestinians believe that Hamas, which seriously intended to observe the three-month hudna and in fact disciplined all of its groups up until that point, broke the agreement because Israel continued its policy of assassinations [of extremist leaders].

Why did Israel keep trying to assassinate leaders of Hamas and other groups during this period of calm?

Israel claimed that, despite the ceasefire, there were Palestinians who were actively planning to commit terrorist acts and consequently they had to stop them, that they were “ticking time bombs.” I don’t think there is anyone who credits this Israeli position. For example, the Israelis assassinated a Hamas leader in Hebron; there was no evidence he was about to launch a suicide attack against Israel.

Did Sharon stop the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, a step called for in the road map?

No, he did not. That goes to the heart of the problem, both in terms of why Mahmoud Abbas was not able to succeed, and how things may look with a new prime minister. Sharon and his government refused to end the expansion of settlements. The road map specifically requires Israel to put an unconditional halt to all settlement construction. Settlement construction did not end and, if anything, was accelerated. Not just construction within settlements, but also the construction of a vast infrastructure, roads, power grids, and water systems. All of this continued and all of this entailed confiscation of Palestinian land on the West Bank. Palestinian negotiators found themselves in the awkward, untenable position of saying to the Palestinian community, “A nonviolent way is much more likely to produce a Palestinian state and trigger a serious peace process,” even as Palestinian land was being stolen from under their feet. That’s not a recipe for a successful peace process, and the United States did nothing about it. The United States did not put any real pressure on Israel to stop it.

Do you know the new Palestinian prime minister nominee, Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala)?

I have known him for many years. He is a good, personal friend, as is Mahmoud Abbas. [Qurei on September 10 accepted Arafat’s nomination to be prime minister.] It seems to me that the expectations that people have— that he will be able to deliver what Abbas was not able to deliver— are entirely unrealistic. Qurei is much less likely than Abbas to challenge Arafat.

Qurei may very well get a concession from Arafat that Abbas was not able to get— namely, consolidation of all the security forces. Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in Sunday’s TV appearances made a big issue of the fact that Arafat denied Abbas this consolidation and Abbas did not have control over the security forces. Qurei may get Arafat to agree to this consolidation, but if he gets it, all this means is that Arafat will be in control of the consolidated security forces. Nominally, it will be Qurei, but in practice, he will not move without Arafat’s approval.

And Israel will not deal with Arafat?

Israel will not deal with Arafat. But there is this theoretical possibility that in Qurei, Arafat will have a prime minister he chose, not someone forced on him, and one who is more responsive to him than Abu Mazen was. Arafat may therefore play a more constructive role and allow the pretense that the United States and Israel are dealing with Qurei, as long as it is clear to all that Qurei will not really move without Arafat’s authorization and approval. In theory, if you eliminate the element of personal competition between the president and the prime minister, you might be able to achieve things that were not achievable before. But this assumes that Israel is prepared to implement the requirements of the road map and to change the lives of Palestinians on the ground. That is a highly questionable proposition.

Why does Israel adopt this negative position?

My own view is because Prime Minister Sharon and his right-wing government— and he has a government that is extremely right-wing— share an essential belief: that Israel cannot afford, in terms of its security or its ideology, the emergence of a real, viable Palestinian state. There is this mindset that such a state would become a bastion of terrorism and a venue for other hostile Arab countries to send their forces into Israel.

In the past, that threat was seen to emanate from Iraq. That threat has been eliminated. It is highly questionable that Syria or any other Arab state is going to send armies across a Palestinian state. On the face of it, it is an irrational fear. Indeed, if Palestinian aspirations are reasonably satisfied, there is far less reason to fear such hostile Arab initiatives. But it has become part of right-wing Israeli dogma. It is ideology, it is myth. I’ve known Sharon for at least three decades, and his goal has been to create facts on the ground, in the West Bank and in Gaza, to make it impossible for any future Israeli government to allow the emergence of a Palestinian state. Politically, it will be impossible to remove the many Israelis [settled on the West Bank and in Gaza]. And he has largely achieved his objective. That is why he will not stop settlement construction, because he is still working to make the current situation on the ground as irreversible as possible.

What has the United States learned from all this?

The lesson from the road map and its failure is the same lesson we should have learned from all previous initiatives that failed. The big failure, of course, was [the] Oslo [peace plan]. But everything that followed failed as well. Namely, the Mitchell Plan, the Tenet guidelines, the Zinni mission. Nothing came from any of those initiatives. All of them had one fundamental flaw, which the United States and other parties have refused to recognize. All these plans had at their heart the principle of incrementalism, that small steps build trust and confidence. A peace plan that defines only the small incremental steps but fails to state clearly the end goal does not build confidence; it undermines it. Until we are prepared to say that the goal of a peace process— the road map or any other such initiative— is a Palestinian state essentially in the West Bank and in Gaza, Palestinians will have no confidence in whatever incremental steps lead to that goal. American reluctance to be explicit about the goal confirms to Palestinians that [the United States] is an unreliable partner that, when push comes to shove, will not stand up to a right-wing Israeli government. Their experience with the road map and Mahmoud Abbas’s premiership has only reinforced that conviction.

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