Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's extended honeymoon with the Bush administration may fast be approaching its end, pundits in Israel warn. It could come down to the issue of settlements, which has long been a bone of contention in the Israel-U.S. relationship.
The trigger is the impending presentation of the "road map" toward Israeli-Palestinian peace, which U.S. officials say should be presented in the next few weeks, as soon as Abu Mazen, the new Palestinian Authority prime minister, names his cabinet.
Sharon's government wants the highly charged issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip deferred from the first phase of the road map to the last, which deals with final-status issues. And that is precisely why government critics say the road map is bound to fail.
Ha'aretz columnist Danny Rubinstein wrote that given the right-wing composition of the Israeli government, "it will take a social and political earthquake in Israel" to freeze settlement growth early in the process, as the road map demands.
Several pundits believe the settlement issue not only will sink the road map but will lead to a showdown with Washington.
"The rift could be only weeks away," Yehuda Litani wrote in the Yediot Achronot daily. "After deploying Patriot air defense systems in Israel to protect us from Iraqi missile attacks and after clearing air bases in western Iraq to preempt such attacks, the Americans won't hesitate to get on their hind legs and bare their claws. The smiles will quickly become scowls, the endearments threats. The crisis is almost upon us."
A recent diplomatic message from Washington suggested that since America's war in Iraq and its subsequent plans for the region were in Israel's interest, Israel should reciprocate by softening its position on settlements.
Jerusalem has plenty of other concerns about the road map, too, not the least of which has to do with timing. Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee April 7 that Israel would not accept the road map until the Palestinians make an effort to prevent terror and cease incitement.
"We are not prepared to compromise our security," he was quoted as saying.
Israel also wants to rule out from the start the possibility that Palestinian refugees and their descendants will return to Israel as part of a final peace deal. It must be made explicit that the refugee problem will be resolved in the Palestinian state that the road map envisions, the Israelis say.
Hard-liners in the Sharon government -- such as Likud legislator Uzi Landau, Housing Minister Effi Eitam and Tourism Minister Benny Elon -- have called the plan "a map to national disaster." They are exerting pressure on Sharon to torpedo the whole idea.
For his part, Sharon is dispatching his aide, Dov Weisglass, to Washington with 15 proposed Israeli amendments. The trip, scheduled for this week, has reportedly been postponed until next week, due to scheduling conflicts.
At the least, Sharon:
• Wants to drop all reference to the Saudi peace plan mentioned in the road map's preamble, on the grounds that it was never presented to Israel. The Saudi plan calls for a complete Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders and a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem under a U.N. resolution that Arab states say recognizes the right of return.
• Demands that the Palestinians recognize Israel's right to exist as a specifically Jewish state.
• Objects to the symmetry implied in the phrase: "All official Israeli institutions end incitement against Palestinians." Israel contends that it is not guilty of anything like the incitement to violence prevalent in the Palestinian media and school system.
• Objects to the demand that Israel "end violence against Palestinians everywhere," which implies limits on Israel's capacity to fight any ongoing terror.
• Wants to strengthen language calling for the dismantling of Palestinian militias and formation of a single unified Palestinian security authority, ending incitement and forming a new Palestinian leadership "not contaminated by terror."
• Seeks to include language placing limitations on Palestinian sovereignty -- for example, by stating that the Palestinian state envisaged in the road map will be demilitarized and that Israel will control its air space and border crossings.
• Wants the United States alone, and not its partners in the diplomatic "Quartet" that authored the road map -- the United Nations, European Union and Russia -- to judge whether the parties have fulfilled their obligations at each stage of the plan. The other parties to the Quartet are biased toward the Palestinians, Israel charges.
Yet American and British leaders have left no room for doubt that the first order of business after deposing Saddam Hussein will be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"I'm pleased with the new leader of the Palestinian Authority," Bush told reporters this week after meeting in Northern Ireland with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. "I look forward to him finally putting his cabinet in place so we can release the road map,"
Still, getting Israelis and Palestinians to move in tandem along the bumpy road map could prove far more difficult than crushing the Iraqi dictatorship.
The head of Israel's military intelligence told a Knesset committee this week that he believes Abu Mazen is committed to fighting terrorism.
But Abu Mazen won't find it easy to impose the cease-fire Israel demands before negotiations can begin. And Sharon says he won't "pay" in irreversible concessions to the Palestinians, just so Britain and the United States can more easily mend fences with Europe and the Arab world after the Iraq war.
There even was talk in diplomatic circles that the Europeans would "pressure the Palestinians," while America would "deliver Israel."
But U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has intimated that nothing quite so dramatic is about to happen. Powell cautions against oversimplifying the issues and implies that coercion will not work.
Beyond the diplomatic posturing, the real question is: Can the road map work?
Former U.S. peace envoy Dennis Ross thinks not. In Ross's view, the road map is weighted against Israel: It satisfies Palestinian strategic goals by providing an end to occupation and recognition of an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian state. But it fails to satisfy Israel's most basic goal, the absolute cessation of violence.
Moreover, Ross said, experience has shown that disputes over whether each side has fulfilled its commitments will derail the process.
Another core problem is the diametrically opposed point of departure each side brings to the table. The Israelis want to focus on steps to end violence, while the Palestinians want guarantees on the shape of the final settlement before they will lay down their arms.
The road map tries to finesse this conundrum by laying down a series of interlinked steps, starting with a cease-fire and leading to full Palestinian statehood within three years. However, it leaves the Israelis uneasy about how the proposed cease-fire will be maintained and the Palestinians suspicious about what kind of state they will be offered in the end, as well as what happens with other key issues, like Jerusalem and refugees.
The road map hopes to solve the overarching problem by setting off a positive dynamic in which both sides reap tangible rewards. However, Oslo, too, was an attempt to create an overarching structure, which would be filled in as the two sides developed more trust in one another -- a process that clearly didn't work.
Not surprisingly, Sharon wants to rectify what he sees as the road map's imbalances before the new process starts.
Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.