May 26, 2003 | Scripps Howard News Service

Slippery Roads

Americans live in Canada. Canadians live in the United States. There are Germans in France, and Frenchmen in Germany, There are Arab citizens of Israel and, of course, there will be Jews in any new Palestinian state. Won't there?

Not bloody likely. Just about everybody appears to agree that such an idea is too offensive to contemplate. The peculiar consensus today is that a Palestinian state must be judenrein — ethnically cleansed of any Jewish “settlements.”

Yet at the same time, Palestinians are demanding not only a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, but also a right to settle millions of Palestinians in Israel proper – the so-called “right to return”  — and thus become a majority there too. Since Palestinians already comprise the majority of Jordan's population, the result would be not one state with a Palestinian majority, not even two states — but three. This contradiction lies at the heart of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's concerns about the Roadmap, the latest plan to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Despite his concerns, Sharon this week conditionally accepted the Roadmap. He did so for two reasons: (1) He doesn't want to embarrass President Bush, whom he sees as someone who understands in his gut as well as his head that both Israel and America are fighting for their lives against Jihadist terrorism.  And (2) though Sharon is thought of as a hard-liner, the truth is that at 75, he would like a durable peace to be the legacy he leaves behind.

Sharon's acceptance of the Roadmap was accompanied by “reservations” in the form of a side letter that shines a light on the map's most dangerous curves. It emphasizes that “in the first phase of the plan and as a condition for progress to the second phase, the Palestinians will complete the dismantling of terrorist organizations and their infrastructure.”

So far, there has been no indication that Mahmoud Abbas (a.k.a. Abu Mazen), the new Palestinian Prime Minister, is willing even to attempt that. Instead, he may try to persuade the various Palestinian terrorist groups to refrain from dispatching suicide bombers for a few months. To accomplish that he will need to reassure them that their goal – the annihilation of Israel – is not being abandoned.

(That this is the goal of the terrorist groups should not be a matter for debate.  As recently as last week, senior Hamas spokesman Mahmoud Zaha told the BBC that Israel “occupied our country in '48. The attitude of Islam is not to accept a foreign state in this area.”  Of course, there never was such a Palestinian “country” and Jewish ties to the area go back much farther than 1948 — 3,000 years in fact. But Hamas, like Al Qaeda, believes that Islam must reign supreme, and Jews and Christians can only be tolerated as subjects of Islamic rule.  What Hamas is fighting for is an end to Jewish nationalism and self-rule, and not, as the Washington Post told its readers only four days after Zaha's unambiguous statement, merely to “continue violent resistance to Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.”  It is remarkable how many major Western media outlets do public relations for Hamas by softening their positions for American consumption.)

That takes us back to the “right of return.” So long as there is a chance to negotiate the complete removal of any Jewish presence from the West Bank as well as a “right” to flood Israel with Palestinians, the Roadmap remains a means of driving Israel off a cliff.

Understanding this, Sharon's side letter also makes it clear that he will follow the Roadmap only on condition that the Palestinian leadership accepts “Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state” (emphasis added) and waives “any right of return for Palestinian refugees to the State of Israel.”

So far, Abbas has not been willing to say that. On the contrary, his response this week to Sharon was to say: “We cannot accept relinquishing the right of return.”

Even if he did, it would mean little at this point because, as Abbas himself acknowledged last week, Yasser Arafat is “the man to whom we refer, regardless of the American or Israeli view of him.  We do not do anything without his approval.”

In the days ahead, Bush plans to meet with Abbas and Sharon. Little of substance is likely to result. But by appearing before the cameras with the two prime ministers and excluding Arafat, Bush will be reinforcing the message he sent in his paradigm-shifting speech of June 24th 2002. He'll be telling the Palestinians that they can have a free, democratic and peaceful state in the West Bank and Gaza — or they can have terrorism and dreams of conquest. But they can't have both. And now would be a good time to decide.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank on terrorism.



Palestinian Politics