As Israel and the Palestinians begin a long-awaited truce, both sides are holding their breath -- and wondering what the United States will do next to advance the "road map" peace plan.
The late June cease-fire by the three main Palestinian terror groups, declared as the intifada approached the 1,000-day mark, underlined the vital importance of the U.S. role. Without U.S. pressure on the Palestinian Authority to crack down on terror groups and on European and Arab nations to cut off their funding, the cease-fire never would have been achieved, Israeli analysts say.
More importantly, the analysts agree that unless Washington keeps up the pressure on both Israel and the Palestinians, the new deal could quickly unravel. Then, instead of moving ahead on the internationally accepted peace plan toward a longer-term settlement, the sides could find themselves locked in an even-worse cycle of violence.
Much will depend on how the Bush administration handles a number of key issues:
Will it force Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to go beyond a cease-fire and dismantle terrorist groups, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as he has agreed to do under the road map?
Will it restrict Israel's freedom of action if the Palestinians violate the cease-fire?
Will it pressure Israel to release Palestinian terrorist prisoners as a goodwill gesture?
Will it lean on Israel to dismantle illegal settlement outposts and established settlements?
Will it insist that Israel stop building a security fence that it says is essential to keep terrorists from infiltrating from the West Bank, but which the Palestinians say is taking their land?
The cease-fire declaration coincided with a visit by Condoleezza Rice, the White House's national security adviser. Her main purpose was to make clear to both sides what the United States expects of them and to signal the U.S. determination to push the road map.
In her talks with Abbas in Ramallah, Rice was firm on dismantling terrorist groups. She used Abbas' own slogan --"one authority, one command and one armed force" -- and echoed Secretary of State Colin Powell and President Bush in insisting that the United States would accept nothing less than the disarming of the groups and the collection of their weapons.
Beyond the rhetoric, the United States reportedly is considering granting the Palestinian Authority as much as $1 billion, partly to help it disarm the militants. Some of the funds would be used to help build an alternative welfare system to Hamas'.
Through this money and other investment, the United States hopes to dramatically improve socioeconomic conditions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, showing that peace pays and encouraging further steps in that direction. Much of the money would be held back, pending convincing evidence that the Palestinians really are decommissioning illegal weapons.
The Americans also are exerting heavy -- and apparently successful -- pressure on European and Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia, to clamp down on funding for Hamas as part of the struggle to strengthen the Palestinian Authority and weaken the fundamentalists.
But what if the Palestinian Authority is unable to impose its authority on all factions and the shooting continues? On Monday, the day after the cease-fire was declared, gunmen from Abbas' own Fatah movement fatally shot a Bulgarian worker in the West Bank, whom they mistook for an Israeli.
To Israel, Rice made very clear that the United States expects it to act with restraint and give the Palestinian Authority time to organize its forces. In talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Cabinet, Rice acknowledged Israel's right to defend its citizens and act against "ticking time bombs," such as suicide bombers on their way to attack -- if the Palestinians, after being given the relevant information, fail to stop them.
However, she said, Israel should "think twice" before retaliating against terrorist acts or plans, taking into account the effects its actions could have on the wider peace process. Israel, Rice said, should be careful not to do anything that weakens Abbas and the Palestinian Authority.
Major Israeli strikes in Palestinian areas will undermine the P.A.'s credibility on the Palestinian street, the United States believes.
Rice also urged Sharon to release as many Palestinian prisoners as possible to boost Abbas' standing and show the Palestinian populace what can be gained by sticking to the road map. Israel is holding approximately 3,000 Palestinian detainees, and Sharon is ready to free several hundred -- but not those who have killed Israelis or directly ordered others to do so.
Sharon has asked the Shin Bet security service to prepare a list of prisoners whose release "would not harm Israel's security."
If the Palestinians adhere to the cease-fire, the United States also can be expected to pressure Israel to continue dismantling illegal outposts, but not bona fide Jewish settlements. The first phase of the road map refers only to outposts set up since March 2001. Calls for the evacuation of settlements proper will come only in the second phase, which calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state in temporary borders, with "maximum territorial continuity."
One area of emerging disagreement between Israel and the United States is the security fence. Abbas told Rice that the Palestinians would have no problems with a fence along the pre-1967 border, but that the route Israel currently plans allegedly would leave only 45 percent of the West Bank in Palestinians hands, divided into three "cantons" -- hardly the viable state envisaged by Bush.
Rice asked Sharon to reconsider the route. Sharon, however, argued that the fence would constitute a security line rather than a political border and could be moved later.
Rice was skeptical. To many people, she said, the route looks like an attempt to create a political border unilaterally, and this is seen as problematic.
Israel's nightmare scenario is that the cease-fire will break down after the Palestinian Authority fails to disarm Hamas and the other terror groups. The question then will be whether the United States, after playing the honest broker, tolerates Israel moving back into the West Bank and Gaza Strip in self-defense.
Much will depend on whom the United States blames for the breakdown of a process in which, by then, it will have invested so much.
Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.
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