Thursday, January 12, 2006

Is the Road Map's Moment Gone?

By Jim Hoagland
The Washington Post
Thursday, January 12, 2006; A21

The United States, its European and Arab allies, and the United Nations have labored for four months to turn Israel's unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip into a catalyst for the creation of an independent, viable Palestinian state. They are visibly failing.

Law and order have disappeared in the Gaza territory since the Israeli withdrawal. Kidnappings and gunfights, not campaign rallies, are the tools of electioneering there. Financial mismanagement by Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority has forced the World Bank to freeze $60 million in budget support and effectively move the PA toward bankruptcy in a matter of weeks.

The spiral toward chaos in Gaza and Ariel Sharon's sudden incapacitation by a severe stroke are destabilizing blows to President Bush's proclaimed strategy for transforming the Middle East into a zone of democracies. Bush must reassess whether he can get there from here.

With Sharon in power, the odds on the "road map" diplomatic process delivering the democratic Palestinian state that Bush and Sharon conditionally endorse were slim. Without Sharon in power, the odds drop to virtually zero.

The Gaza withdrawal was the product not of understandings between Sharon and Abbas but of an ambivalent if productive relationship between Sharon and Bush. Ending the occupation of Gaza was above all an Israeli-American arrangement, tied to the expectation that the Israeli prime minister's time in office would begin and end roughly with the American president's tenure.

The eight-year political balance sheet of give-and-take that the two leaders set up underpinned Sharon's formal acceptance of the U.N.-blessed process for creating a Palestinian state. The road map toward peace was a risk that the audacious Sharon was willing to take to secure Bush's backing, not an objective he sought or ever planned.

Just as Europeans abandoned colonialism to improve their own lives and not the lives of the Africans, Arabs and Asians they set free, Sharon ended Israel's occupation of Gaza solely for Israeli security reasons. He would wall in the Gazans with security fences and other measures and remain seemingly indifferent to what became of them.

But Sharon's daring gave Bush, the international community and, most of all, the Palestinians an opening that seemed to promise complete autonomy in Gaza and significant unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank if Sharon won reelection in March.

Sharon's incapacitation and the Gaza upheavals now call that opening into question. No other Israeli politician has the domestic support, the audacity and the force of personality to bulldoze forward historic change in the West Bank by the end of Bush's term. Moreover, the turmoil in Gaza is closing the window of international support for such change.

The road map, like most formulas for peacemaking, is based on the commendable premise that everyone deserves a second or even third chance. Right now the Palestinians are severely testing that article of faith -- at a moment when they have everything to gain from taking responsibility for their affairs and demonstrating political maturity.

Forcing Egyptian police officers and European Union observers to flee their posts for safety hardly suggests maturity. Neither does the decision by the Palestinian Authority to raise salaries and break its commitment to live within the large aid flows that international donors provide. That act triggered the freeze on budget support by the World Bank.

After Yasser Arafat died, "we hoped for new momentum in the direction of governmental reforms and the fight against corruption," World Bank representative Nigel Roberts told the Israeli daily Haaretz this week. But "Arafatism" lives on without Arafat and has grown worse, Roberts added.

Instead of moving to transform themselves into the nucleus of one of the Arab world's first true democracies -- as Bush, Sharon and their road-map partners pretended the Palestinians quickly could -- the Palestinian territories continue to be angry, explosive ghettos. In Gaza, gunmen who recently were receiving financial rewards for attacking Israelis are now "unemployed" and threaten their neighbors and the Palestinian Authority.

It must be said that four months is a short time to fix the consequences of centuries of occupation of the Palestinians by Turks, Arabs and Israelis, as well as the damage caused by the scandalous insistence of Arab states and the United Nations that the Palestinians remain enclosed in permanent refugee camps, even on their own lands.

Yes, that must be said. But so must this: The striking down of Ariel Sharon at a crucial moment of transformation demonstrates that in the Middle East today, a short time is the only time you've got.

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