NEW YORK, March 17 (UPI) -- After more than two years of strategic neglect that brought the Israelis and Palestinians to the brink of disaster, President Bush, under intense pressure from his staunch ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and many Arab heads-of-state decided to advance his ideas about a road map for peace in the Middle East.
To do so on the eve of waging war against Iraq, however, seems to be nothing more than a diplomatic stunt designed to placate a politically besieged friend and assuage incensed Arab leaders who feel abandoned for a narrow American objective with Iraq as its only focus.
A solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis is not an addendum to our conflict with Iraq. It requires unflinching commitment, direct, active and constant involvement on our part, and a willingness to invest tremendous capital, both political and financial. Otherwise one might ask: By what logic should we believe that the Israelis and the Palestinians will enter into peace negotiations when our troops are occupying Iraq, which will in all likelihood provoke an increase in Islamic and Arab militancy that will translate into violence, including suicide bombings, and other forms of acts of terror against American and Israeli targets?
Moreover, how serious can Bush's "Road Map for Peace" be when he states, "I expect and welcome contributions from Israel and the Palestinians to this document that will advance true peace"? Surely, such an open-ended invitation is nothing but a recipe for yet another intractable, pointless and recriminating negotiation; in short, one that will do nothing to advance peace.
Considering the right-wing nature of the Israeli government and the debilitating factionalism within the Palestinians, a true road map for peace must be unequivocal about fundamental issues including: the need for an exchange of territories captured in the 1967 war for peace, an end to settlement activity, the cessation of all violence, the abandonment by the Palestinians of their claim to the right of return, on which the United States must take a firm stand.
Moreover, for any such road map to work, it will need to be supported in its implementation by an unwavering commitment by the American president regardless of how events unfold subsequent to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
The question is: Can the president really shoulder this new and awesome responsibility when the outcome of a war with Iraq remains highly unpredictable, and there is growing apprehension about its aftermath?
Bush seems to pre-empt and undermine his own plan, raising questions as to its substantive seriousness, because of his timing, approach and the opening he left to Israel and the Palestinians to make new demands on one another that could torpedo, once again, the negotiation. The president may in effect have discredited his plan before it has even been officially proposed!
Bush would have been much better off to have gotten his Iraq debacle underway before making matters worse by conveying the impression that he will resort to diplomatic expediency, as exemplified in this plan, to serve his aim. This road map is simply the latest example of how far the administration is willing to go in its single-minded pursuit to garner multi-lateral consensus for war against Iraq. Adding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the Iraqi mix suggests that somehow peace between Israel and the Palestinians will find its way through Baghdad -- logic typical of an administration that can find its resonance on such a critical issue mainly through ploys and wild postulations.
Contrary to the opinions espoused by the Bush administration, neither the war on terrorism nor the Israeli-Palestinian crisis will be resolved by the ouster of Saddam Hussein and the occupation of Iraq. If this administration were serious about the war on terrorism, it would have made resolution of the disastrous Israeli-Palestinian conflict a primary immediate objective after 9/11 in order to stem the swelling ranks of al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations. But for more than two years the administration abandoned dealing with the most glaring source of terror -- the unsettled Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- only to turn around and try to exploit it at the 11th hour before launching war against Iraq. How is it possible not to be concerned that this road map will eventually go nowhere?
After 9/11 nearly the whole world coalesced behind the United States, not merely expressing sympathy, but standing shoulder-to-shoulder with us in our global fight against terrorism. But less than two years later, the government has squandered this sympathy, and even alienated much of the international community, and provoked hatred against the United States. Now we also find ourselves in the midst of an historic schism with our closet allies.
In the process, we've managed to rattle and weaken international institutions and lose much of our prestige, with even small nations in need of our patronage refusing to support the war initiative. We are viewed by much of the world community as a bully -- arrogant, self-consumed, blindly pursuing our own principles.
If we could point to just one major source of international terrorism, it would be the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And if the president has finally realized that he must confront this problem head on, this would be all to the good. But to use this conflict as a ploy for any other purpose is ultimately tragic not only for the Israelis and Palestinians: It will shatter what is left of our credibility and moral leadership.
(Alon Ben-Meir is Middle East Project Director at the World Policy Institute, New York and a professor of International Relations at New York University.)