Will He or Won’t He?

As the Palestinians move forward with the confirmation of a
new prime minister, many are looking to the White House to see when President
Bush will unveil the “road map” toward Israeli-Palestinian peace.

They may be waiting a while.

Administration officials and analysts say that Mahmoud
Abbas, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s choice for prime
minister, will need to show that he has significant authority before Bush takes
the next step.

“He needs to appoint his cabinet, get them approved by the
legislative council and then he can say ‘dayenu’ [it would have been
sufficient] and take the road map,” said Stephen Cohen, national scholar for
the Israel Policy Forum.

One State Department official said Abbas will need to show
“he has real authority and is truly independent from forces who practice
violence and terror.”

And the question remains as to whether the road map
presented to the parties will be up for negotiations or will be considered a
final draft. Bush caught many off guard earlier this month when, just days
before the war against Iraq began, he announced that the road map would be
submitted to the parties after a prime minister with “real authority” was

While Jewish leaders were concerned with the timing of the
announcement, and the perceived motive of aiding embattled British Prime
Minister Tony Blair, they were pleased that the controversial road map would
still be open to negotiation, according to Bush.

The Israelis have been concerned that the road map requires
Israel to make concessions without a full cessation of violence, and places too
much emphasis on the role of the diplomatic “Quartet” — the United States,
United Nations, European Union and Russia — that drafted the road map. For that
reason, they had requested — and received — several delays of the release of
the road map, first until after Israel’s January elections and then until Prime
Minster Ariel Sharon had formed a new government.

Even now that Bush has expressed his interest in expediting
the road map, many continue to believe it will not be placed at the top of the
administration’s agenda. Officially, the State Department says release of the
document will not need to wait for the war’s end.

“He wants to release it soon,” one State Department official
said of the president, “once the new Palestinian prime minister is confirmed
and it appears we have moved on the path to creating a new dynamic in the
Palestinian leadership.”

To that end, the CIA is creating a mechanism to monitor
progress on the conditions of the road map. CIA Director George Tenet created a
cease-fire plan in 2001 that was not implemented, and it is believed that the
CIA will play a role in the road map. However, it’s unclear how deep that role
will be, given the CIA’s expanded portfolio of work in combating terrorism. But
many believe Bush’s won’t present the road map until after significant progress
has been made on his main objective in the Middle East, regime change in Iraq.

Edward Abington, a former consul general to Jerusalem who
now serves as a political consultant to the Palestinian Authority, said there
is much skepticism in the Arab world about Bush’s commitment to the road map.

“They’re not stupid,” Abington said. “They see that the road
map announcement was made to help Tony Blair.”

The Palestinians believe that when it is released, the road
map should be a final text, with discussion focused only on implementation.

“They think the Israeli objective is to so condition the
road map that it never goes anywhere,” Abington said.

Some in the State Department agree, if spokesman Richard
Boucher’s comments last week are any indication.

“The document will be released as the road map, that is the
road map and that will be the road map,” Boucher said last week. “We’ll expect
comments, we’ll expect discussion of how to implement it.”

But others have said there will be more time for
consultation. That also was suggested to Jewish leaders who met with National
Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice after Bush made his road map speech.

“We’ve always looked upon the road map as a living document
and not ironclad,” the State Department official said. “We hope they will not
be renegotiating it in its entirety.”

Cohen said the road map text has become “much refried

“It’s a text that has been around for a long time, digested,
chewed up and spit out,” he said. “They are not going to refry it again before
it is put on the plate.”

Cohen said it’s not necessary for the sides to agree to all
of the plan’s parameters before moving forward with it. Unlike the tight
timetables of the Oslo accords — which few people in the Bush administration
want to replicate — the vagueness of the road map would mean that the two sides
would have to agree before moving from one stage to the next.

The advantage of the road map is that it gets Israelis and
Palestinians back on a path of negotiations toward a defined goal, even if
every step of the way isn’t clear, Cohen said.