by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON --
President George W. Bush follow in his father's footsteps after his own victory over Iraq and exert serious pressure on Israel to implement the "road map" to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?
That is the big question here and in other world capitals a day after the Palestinian parliament voted to confirm a new government headed by Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, fulfilling the last condition prescribed by Washington for proceeding with the road map, details of which were released by the State Department on Wednesday.
Bush insists he is fully committed to the process, which was drafted by the so-called Quartet -- the United Nations, Russia, the European Union and the United States. "I will work hard to achieve a two-state solution," he told a television interviewer this week. "I will push and push."
Pushing him to do precisely that will be two powerful world figures -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Secretary of State Colin Powell -- who stuck by the president in the controversial war in Iraq.
State Department and CIA experts argue that Washington's failure to move on that issue will only stoke the anger and sense of humiliation that has reached new heights in the Arab world as a result of the war.
But despite Bush's public commitment to implementing the road map, there remains considerable doubt here that he is prepared to oppose Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
A seven-page plan, the road map is ultimately aimed at creating an independent and viable Palestinian state alongside Israel by 2005. It requires both parties to take concurrent and parallel steps over the two-year period.
First steps in the process would require Palestinians to halt violence against Israel and launch economic and political reforms, which began with the election of Abbas, who Washington hopes will become increasingly independent of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.
At the same time, Israel would be required to begin withdrawing its forces from key West Bank towns and ease its grip on the Occupied Territories by, among other steps, freezing settlement activity and dismantling the scores of illegal settlements that have been created by Israeli since the Palestinian intifada began in September, 2000.
The Palestinians say the plan should be implemented to the letter, but Israel insists that it should not be required to take any major steps before Palestinians halt all attacks against its citizens and Abbas consolidates his control over the Palestinian Authority.
But Quartet members say posing such preconditions on Israel's implementation violates the simultaneity requirements of the process. "The simultaneity is the absolute core of the road map," M. J. Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum, a group that supports the road map, told the 'Los Angeles Times' on Wednesday.
So far, the administration has sided with both its Quartet partners and the Palestinians in insisting that the obligations are mutual and simultaneous.
But how hard Bush and key policy-makers are prepared to push Sharon remains in question.
Several senior Bush officials and advisers -- the same hawks around Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney who led the charge for war against Iraq -- are known to sympathize strongly with Sharon's views about the road map, as well as his hopes of retaining at least one-half of the West Bank in any eventual settlement.
Richard Perle, the powerful former chairman of the Defense Policy Board (DPB), has denounced the road map's simultaneity provisions explicitly. His views are believed to reflect those of the director for Mideast affairs on the National Security Council, Elliott Abrams, and the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, Douglas Feith.
Other neo-conservative members of the Rumsfeld-appointed DPB, including former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich who is believed to have been given the green light by senior Pentagon officials for a savage attack on Powell last week, have also spoken out against the plan. They have also attacked the role of the EU and the UN in the process, arguing that they are biased against Israel.
Significantly, Perle, Abrams and Feith, another undersecretary of defense, Dov Zakheim, and Michael Mobbs, a top Justice Department official who now holds a senior post in the occupation authority in Iraq, all signed an ad in the 'New York Times' 11 years ago publicly denouncing Bush's father for pressing then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir into negotiations with Arab states after the first Gulf War. That pressure eventually resulted in the beginning of the Oslo process.
"As friendly as the United States is with many Arab states," they wrote, along with 30 other former senior government officials who called themselves the Committee on U.S. Interests in the Middle East, "when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the United States must be squarely on the side of the Israelis."
In recent weeks, Sharon's U.S. allies among other neo-conservatives and in the Christian Right -- a core constituency for Bush -- have also spoken out strongly against the road map, as have their publications, including 'The Weekly Standard' and 'The Wall Street Journal'.
The powerful Republican Majority Leader in the House of Representatives, Tom DeLay, for example, warned that any negotiations with Palestinians would "amount to a covenant with death."
"We are absolutely right to stand with Israel, and our opponents are absolutely wrong," declared DeLay in a speech to a Christian Right group earlier this month.
The most powerful Israel lobby groups, the hawkish American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, have also flexed their muscle against the road map's simultaneity provisions.
Eight-seven of 100 senators and 297 of 435 representatives have so far signed on to a letter backed by the two groups that urges Bush to demand that the Palestinians stop all violence and demonstrate Abbas' independence and control over the Palestinian Authority before Israel is obliged to do anything, including stop settlement activity.
Even Bush's political advisers, who see an opportunity to make unprecedented inroads on Jewish support for the Democratic Party in 2004, have reportedly warned him against pressing Sharon into major concessions, insisting that the president not only risks reducing historically high approval ratings for his performance among traditionally liberal U.S. Jews, but also may disappoint his core supporters among Christian Right activists.
But despite such mobilization against the road map, some Jewish activists who support the plan have called on Bush to follow through with it.
Earlier this week, 14 major Jewish philanthropists, led by World Jewish Congress President Edgar Bronfman, sent a letter to congressional leaders urging them to support it.
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