by N Janardhan
(IPS) DUBAI --
George W. Bush's promise to unveil the Middle East "road map" toward a Palestinian state by 2005 has very little to do with ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict -- and a lot to do with trying to defuse Arab and European anger over the imminent war on Iraq, say analysts.
With the last of the U.S.-driven political reform conditions - the Palestinian parliament ratified the post of prime minister on Tuesday -- Washington is expected to make good any time now its recent announcement of publishing the peace proposal.
"Bush's announcement is a damage-limiting exercise," said Rima Sabban, international relations professor at the Dubai University College.
"With the Iraq war, and the Arab world angry at the lack of U.S. initiative to settle the Palestinian conflict, the statement was a diplomatic coup," she said.
Explaining her pessimism, Sabban said: "The timing is astonishing. Peace in the Middle East has been at the bottom of the present U.S. administration's agenda. To suddenly come up with the announcement is not a very convincing proposition."
Most significantly, the road map is being seen as a sop to opponents of war in Britain -- which have always been more sympathetic toward the Palestinian cause -- and Jordan, where a large number of Palestinian refugees reside alongside U.S. troops who aid war efforts against Iraq.
Bush's decision signifies nothing, says independent political analyst Inad Khairallah. The road map that emerged from negotiations last year between the "Quartet" -- United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia -- is not an end itself, he said.
Among the conditions set forth for the road map to move ahead are the need for Palestinians to halt violence and to carry out sweeping democratic reforms, including the creation of the new post of prime minister.
Israel is then expected to freeze the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which it occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.
"Israel has demanded 100 revisions in the road map, effectively rejecting it without total renovation in accordance with its specifications," Khairallah said in an interview.
"The main demand is for the removal of all mention of an 'independent' Palestinian state. There will be no 'further withdrawals' from territory meant for the Palestinians under the Oslo accords. This would leave the Palestinians in control of just about 19 percent of the West Bank and only 55 to 60 percent of the Gaza Strip," he added.
The Israeli daily 'Haartez' reported on Sunday that Tel Aviv wants the road map to stipulate a Palestinian state with "certain attributes of sovereignty," which would have to be "credible" and "law abiding". How the road map takes shape will depend on the outcome of imminent war on Iraq, Sabban said.
"If there are high casualties in the Iraq war, Arabs will have more bargaining power. On the contrary, if the U.S.-led forces finish the war in quick time with limited casualties, Washington and Tel Aviv will call the shots."
For now, however, "the road map is meant to pacify the Arab public mood in anticipation of a heavy civilian death toll," the academic added in an interview.
An editorial in Jordan's 'Al Dustour' newspaper called the White House a "political bribe." It added: "It would have been better for the U.S. president to keep his goods for himself, because this bribe will only increase Arab and Muslim misgivings and hatred for American arrogance."
The prevalent mood of skepticism stems from past Arab experiences with U.S. promises to create a Palestinian state.
While waging war against Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait in 1991, then President George W Bush vowed to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict soon after that conflict in return for Arab support. Twelve years later, an independent Palestine is still a dream.
The Palestinians are also concerned that Bush has left the door open to more discussion and amendments to the road map, rather than ensuring it is implemented straightaway.
It is also unclear how President Yasser Arafat's retention of the power to negotiate peace -- as opposed to the Israeli demand that the new prime minister must be in charge -- will affect the road map.
According to Sabban, negotiations after a war on Iraq will not yield a state that will meet the expectations of the Palestinians.
"Remember, the Israeli government led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won elections earlier this year on an anti-Palestine vote. Like the 1993 Oslo agreement forced the Palestinians to accept peace on Israeli terms, the next deal will also eat into Arab aspirations.," he said.
Knowing very well the Palestinian hunger for freedom and independence, compromise formulas will be thrust of future discussions, and these, unfortunately, will be accepted, she added.
Still, some welcomed the U.S. announcement of a road map for the region.
A Kuwaiti official statement carried by the state Kuna news agency said it hoped Bush's announcement "represents a positive and serious beginning to reviving efforts" to end the Palestinians' ordeal and restoring their legitimate rights.
'Al Ittihad' newspaper of the United Arab Emirates said the U.S. statement has renewed the hope of resuming a real and effective international move to end the tragedy of the Palestinian people and the Israeli forces' atrocities against them.
"Bush's reaffirmation of his personal commitment to the peace plan nullifies the accusations flung at the international community for forgetting the Palestinian issue," it added.
Israeli political commentators, however, are not satisfied.
Chemi Shalev of Israeli newspaper 'Maariv' dismissed it as "a publicity stunt, predominantly as a public relations ploy intended to help his poor friend, Tony Blair, and to try to salvage something from Washington's diplomatic downfall at the United Nations and in world public opinion."
"It is reasonable to assume the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still of no interest to President Bush," Shalev commented.
Reacting to that statement, Sabban suggested that just as the Palestinian issue is being used to win support for war against Iraq, Bush will drag his feet on this issue until his re-election and after.
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