As soon as the dust settles in Baghdad, President Bush and his good friend, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, could be heading for a showdown.
The looming bone of contention is the "road map" toward Israeli-Palestinian peace prepared by the diplomatic quartet of the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia.
Bush wants to use the road map to break the current impasse between Israel and the Palestinians, but Sharon fears that the plan may offer the Palestinians rewards without ensuring real change in their approach to Israel.
Israeli officials make light of the possible clash, giving many reasons why they think it won't happen. But they could be in for a surprise: After victory in Iraq, Bush may want to show the international community that he's serious about imposing a Pax Americana on the Middle East as a whole.
Bush has underlined his commitment to the road map twice in recent weeks. In a Feb. 26 speech to the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., he declared that "it is the commitment of our government -- and my personal commitment -- to implement the road map." Then, in a brief White House appearance on March 14, Bush insisted that "the time has come to move beyond entrenched positions and to take concrete actions to achieve peace."
As soon as a Palestinian prime minister with real authority is confirmed in office, he said, the United States will present the road map to both Israel and the Palestinians.
Israeli officials suggest Bush's comments were designed to help embattled European allies and put pressure on the Palestinian leadership, and in no way signaled a coming clash with Israel.
They argue that Bush wanted primarily to help British Prime Minister Tony Blair deflect domestic criticism of his support for war against Iraq. According to this logic, presenting the road map would show Blair's opponents that the campaign against Iraq is not directed against the Arabs per se but was a first step in a wider plan to stabilize the region.
Bush, the officials continue, also wanted to force Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to grant extensive powers to his prime minister-designate, Mahmoud Abbas, by making it clear that he would present the road map only after a prime minister "with real authority" was appointed.
Still, there could be trouble for Israel down the road. Sharon first received a draft of the road map during a visit to the United States last October. Soon after that, it underwent a process of amendment and refinement by the Quartet. Israel received the revised draft on Dec. 20 and has been drafting amendments and reservations of its own since then.
Israel's objections to the plan are numerous and profound. As one pundit put it, on the Israeli copy of the draft, "there are more erasures, additions and amendments than original text." Israel objects both to the plan's end goal and the mechanism for achieving it.
The road map sets as its final goal an "independent Palestinian state" in three years. But Israel wants it to be crystal clear that the state will have limited sovereignty: It will be demilitarized and barred from making military alliances, and its border crossings and air space will be controlled by Israel.
Israel also insists that each step on the way to statehood be completed to its satisfaction before the next step starts. In other words, progress toward statehood must be "performance-based."
The Israelis further argue that the notions of performance-based benchmarks and strict timetables are mutually exclusive. If the Palestinians know they will achieve statehood in three years come what may, what incentive do they have to carry out reforms that ostensibly are conditions for receiving statehood?
The Israelis have many more reservations. For example, they insist that before there can be real progress, there must be "a new and different Palestinian leadership" and that Abbas still has to prove himself.
They also say:
The section on security reforms should be underpinned by inserting the very clear, verifiable proposals made in March 2002 by U.S. envoy Gen. Anthony Zinni.
It is absurd to demand a parallel Israeli renunciation of violence and incitement, as if Israel's war against terror is on the same moral footing as the terror itself.
Mention of the "Saudi peace initiative," which Israel has never officially received, must be removed from the preamble.
Israel should have a say on whether the Palestinians have completed security-related steps, such as the collection of illegal weapons.
The Americans are aware of the Israeli objections but, in the main, reject them. A senior U.S. official made it clear to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that as things stand, the United States does not see eye to eye with Israel.
"The road map is more of a simultaneous thing," the official said. "I know Sharon's vision is 'one after the other' -- first total reform, removal of Arafat and, only then, being able to talk about a Palestinian state. But that's not the road map as it stands. And Bush says he supports the road map, not the road map as revised by the Sharon government."
Still, Israeli officials say the breach between the United States and Europe over Iraq might widen after the war, perhaps making the United States more inclined to see things Israel's way. They hope a victorious United States will squeeze out the other members of the Quartet and deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict primarily on its own. If that happens, they say, the United States will be less likely to pressure Israel, especially in the run-up to a presidential election year in the United States.
But some Israeli analysts dismiss this as wishful thinking. In fact, they say, it's more likely that after the war in Iraq, the United States will do its best to mend fences with Europe.
For one thing, the United States will want European help in funding Iraq's postwar reconstruction -- and pundits say this trans-Atlantic rapprochement could very well come, at least partly, at Israel's expense.
Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.
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