All Writings
May 9, 2003

Why The Road Map Is Doomed To Failure

Unless Israelis and Palestinians dramatically alter their psychological dispositions, prospects for peace will remain illusionary.

The second Intifadah has transformed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict creating, for each side, a new psychological disposition: to deny each other the conditions necessary for reconciliation and accommodation. The road map for peace ignores this new and fundamental reality, outlining instead cosmetically reciprocal steps for both parties to take to reach a solution when, in fact, survival itself is seen by each as the central issue.

It is hard to exaggerate the repercussions and the implications of the second Intifadah, and how it resonated among the Palestinians and its effect on the Israelis. The first Intifadah (1987-1993) focused, true to the meaning of the word (a rough translation is uprising), on the tactic of civil disobedience to dislodge the Israeli occupation. In contrast, the second Intifadah was characterized by an armed struggle which quickly became a war for both sides' very existence. The intensity of the violence led to the destruction of nearly everything previously achieved in the years following the first Oslo accord in 1993: a Palestinian infrastructure, socio-economic relations, territorial concessions, and the destruction of mutual trust. The mindsets emerging from the ashes have immeasurably widened the gap between the two sides. These two views can not be reconciled, short of some dramatic change.

As he visits the region to push for the implementation of the Bush administration's road map, Secretary of State Colin Powell should understand that brushing off big issues, such as the right of return for Palestinians, and focusing rather on each side's taking reciprocal steps to ease tensions and then to build on this foundation, will simply not work in the long-term. The administration needs to recall that as recently as mid-2000, the Palestinians retained control of all their major cities while economic, social and cultural exchanges with Israel had reached a new high, as had cooperation on security issues. Israelis and Palestinians also appeared on the verge of reaching an historical accord, with the Palestinians gaining their cherished goal of statehood. Only a few months later, all of these achievements lay in the dust, replaced by intense mutual animosity and disdain as violence reached heinously unimaginable levels. Confidence building measures did not work because the principle of a two-states solution, based on the idea that each party had the right to exist side-by-side with the other, seemed no longer feasible to either. This change in mindset must be directly addressed if any road map is to be successful. Specifically, monumental issues such as the right of return of Palestinian refugees, the future of the settlements, and the drawing of final borders cannot and must not be left for a later date. In fact, it was the right of return that torpedoed the final phase of the Camp David negotiations in the Summer of 2000.

No one familiar with the current political scene can suggest that today's conditions hold out more hope for a solution than those that existed three years ago. Even more distressingly, there is no sign that either side has reached the point of exhaustion necessary to create the mutual willingness to make the far-reaching concessions for peace. Here is why the present situation will continue until the underlying issues are addressed:

On the Israeli side, the wanton and indiscriminate Palestinian violence, especially the suicide bombings, has pushed a majority of Israelis to the right, as shown by Likud's victory over Labor in the past two elections. Labor, along with other left-of-center parties that strongly supported a two-state solution on the basis of exchanging most of the territory captured in1967 for peace, has lost its bearings. The Labor party has even grown almost irrelevant, particularly in the wake of the disastrous defeat in last January's elections. Thus, no strong opposition voices now exist in Israel who can challenge Prime Minister Sharon and the dominance of his and other right-wing parties.

In addition, the consensus among Israelis is that Palestinian-initiated violence is not just a means to end the occupation but aimed at the Israel's destruction. This perception is what has created the new Israeli mindset which opposes intermediate concessions out of fears the Palestinian strategy is to destroy Israeli in stages. This view was strengthened by the Palestinian insistence at Camp David on the right of return, which if effectuated, would have meant the end, via the changed demographics, of Israel as a Jewish state.

Finally, the nature of the violence shattered the last vestige of Israeli trust towards the Palestinians, making any future accommodation far more difficult. Israelis hardly take lightly the repeated public calls by Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other extremist Palestinian groups for the destruction of their state through continuing acts of terrorism and violence. Many do not trust even moderate Palestinian leaders, including the new prime minister Mahmoud Abbas. They believe the Palestinian Authority wants to end violence not because it is intolerable under any circumstances but because it has undermined the Palestinian cause.

For the Palestinians, their new psychological disposition is no less compelling–a fact that makes future reconciliation even less likely, short of a revolutionary change in attitude. First, a substantial number of Palestinians believe that violence is the only way to make Israel evacuate the territories. Keeping up the violence, the argument goes, will lead to the liquidation of the state of Israel. Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other extremist groups cite Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon, presumably under Hizbullah's gun, as an example of how Israelis wilt when made to suffer mounting human losses.

Second, despite public utterances to the contrary, the Palestinian Authority has by design not come to grips with the reality of Israel. Thus, it never made any real effort to indoctrinate the people that Israel had a right to exist. Nor did the Authority try to disabuse ordinary Palestinians of their belief in the certainty of Israel's ultimate destruction. The PLO covenant to this day affirms this outcome, Palestinian schoolchildren are taught hatred of Israel, the media continues to incite the public against Israel, and suicide bombing is equated with martyrdom.

Third, for most Palestinians, the Israeli occupation and the settlements' policy are proof that Israel has no intention of evacuating the territories any time soon. Each new brick used in building new settlements or expanding existing ones are seen as another nail in the coffin of a Palestinian state. The occupation has left Palestinians with a sense of hopelessness, and even though Arafat could have ended the occupation by agreeing to the Camp David accords, very few of them know that a real opportunity for peace and a state of their own had been missed in the Summer of 2000.

The United States has been, and will continue to be, the only power that can bring about peace between Israel and the Arab world. But for the last 30 months, the Bush administration tragically neglected the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. This neglect has largely contributed to the present situation. It is in the context of the two belligerents' intensified hostility, heightened self-denial, and their greatest mistrust of each other that the administration has presented its road map. Unfortunately, nothing indicates the Bush administration has achieved an understanding of the psychological dimensions of the crisis. The road map introduces no element to produce a dramatic push forward–a critical requirement to begin a process of reconciliation. Without this the road map is doomed to failure.

To make the situation worse, the looming presidential elections will soon put the road map on the back burner. The president, who has earned a reputation for his political savvy, is unlikely to invest much of his political capital in such an uncertain venture, especially one that also risks his losing the support of one of his main constituencies–the Christian Right–should he attempt to pressure Israel.