The view from Washington

10 February 2003
The US has been a back-seat driver in the Middle East peace process over the last two years. Efforts to negotiate an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have made little headway pending the publication of President Bush's much-vaunted 'road-map' to peace. The US has now let it be known that the official launch of the peace plan - originally due in late January - will be delayed until the end of February or early March. Ostensibly this is to allow Sharon time to form a coalition government that can engage with a new US initiative, but is Washington merely stalling or is there a strategic purpose to putting back the launch?

There are two explanations doing the rounds in US and European political circles, both of which cast a very different light on the Bush administration's intentions. The first is that Washington is wholly preoccupied with the crisis in Baghdad and has little interest in opening up a second diplomatic front in Jerusalem. 'I don't think the Israeli elections weigh much on the mind of the Americans at the moment,' says a UK Foreign Office spokesman. 'They really do seem to have other priorities at the moment.'

The second explanation for the delay is that Washington has taken on board the repeated insistence from European and Middle East allies that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an essential political counterbalance to military action in Iraq. 'There are a lot of credible rumours floating around Washington that the road-map will go to the table at exactly the same time as a second UN resolution on Iraq comes up,' says a Washington-based political analyst. '[UK Prime Minister] Blair and [French President] Chirac have put quite a lot of pressure on the US government to commit to a peace plan.'

In this second scenario, the US' potential military allies have made the publication and implementation of the road-map an essential condition of their support for military action - a multilateral platform that Bush needs to win over the support of the American public for a war against Iraq. The four-six week delay to publication indicated by US officials could offer a tentative schedule for planned military action in the Gulf.

There is little doubt that European governments have become increasingly impatient about the US' reluctance to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. 'The settlement work [in the West Bank and Gaza] under the last Israeli government is particularly worrying, and it could get to the stage where a two-state solution is no longer possible,' says one European diplomat based at the UN headquarters in New York. 'In some ways a right-wing coalition could be a good thing, as it won't survive very long. What European governments have said to the Americans is that you can't just ignore this issue. We have raised this at every level to make sure it doesn't drop off their radar.'

A delay to the publication of the road-map gives time for Washington to assess the make-up of the new Israeli coalition government and its possible response to a peace plan, but US officials insist that the central elements of that plan will not be redrafted to cater for right-wing idealogues in Sharon's new cabinet. 'I'd hope that the make-up of the new government will not affect the status of the road-map,' says Greg Sullivan, chief spokesman for the US State Department on Middle East affairs. 'Some of its central points, such as an end to settlement activity, will raise concerns for some parties in the Israeli political establishment, but this is one of the core, known features of the plan and it is not going to change.'

All markings on the road-map point to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state by 2006, but few elements of the plan will surprise observers of previous peace initiatives. 'We always come back to the same issues that have to be tackled, such as settlement activity, Israeli and Palestinian violence and the status of Jerusalem,' says Sullivan. 'The solutions are limited.'

The most controversial issue outlined in the road-map is the status of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and on this point the US has capitulated to Israeli requests by pursuing one solution alone: his removal. 'Our view hasn't changed. There has got to be a new dynamic in the Palestinian political scene and there has to be new leadership,' says Sullivan. 'We are working within the Quartet [the UN, the EU, Russia and the US] to organise elections that will produce a new leadership. The fact is, we've seen that when Palestinians are allowed to explore their options through the democratic process Chairman Arafat does not emerge as the leader of their dreams . we are very focused on not making Arafat the focus of the debate.'

The focus instead is on creating an executive and legislature that are free from what the US considers to be a destructive cult of personality that has arisen during the Al-Aqsa intifada. 'We saw the increasing 'Beirutisation' of the West Bank and Gaza in the early days of the intifada, where everyone who was anyone had their own private security force and power was based on a personal, not institutional structure of command,' says Sullivan. 'Rather than having individuals representing the cause of the Palestinians, we would rather have more powerful, less transient institutions in which they can retain sovereignty.'

If the attitude of the US State Department is anything to go by, Washington is prepared not only to commit itself once again to mediating peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, but to actively press forward with its vision of a new political order for the Middle East: potentially a more worrying prospect for the critics of US inaction. 'Make no mistake,' says Sullivan. 'This is nation building. And it is not going to happen overnight.'

Digby Lidstone

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