The recent push given by US President George W. Bush to the so-called Middle East "road map" is welcome, and the fact that both Israel and the Palestinians have accepted it is a good omen. Yet the chances that it will bring real, as opposed to merely rhetorical, progress toward reconciliation remain slim.
The reasons are manifold: First, what is called a "road map" is in reality little more than a wish list of what has to be done in order to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians. It is a noble set of goals, but it sometimes appears to be distant from the region's political realities.
For example, the road map rightly acknowledges that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be solved in a void; regional considerations must be taken into account. The plan calls for far-reaching Israeli concessions: withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza, dismantling of settlements, some compromise about Jerusalem.
At the same time, the "quartet" that composed the road map -- the US, the EU, Russia, and the UN -- realizes that Israel cannot be convinced to make such concessions without a fundamental change in the general attitude of the Arab world to the existence of the Jewish state. Despite peace with Egypt and Jordan, Israel remains threatened by such countries as Syria and Libya, whose extremist regimes are deeply involved in violent terrorism against civilians in Israel and either possess or try to possess weapons of mass destruction.
For this reason, the road map premises peace between Israel and the Palestinians on normalization of relations between Israel and all Arab countries. Can this really be achieved in the foreseeable future?
Does the US -- or, for that matter the Quartet -- really believe they know how to move Syria or Libya from their current closed-mind position, which threatens Israel's existence? There is no indication in the road map that the initiators have thought this out beyond wishing out loud that it would happen.
Similarly, the road map is an attempt to revive the Oslo peace process. But this process, based in the 1993 Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), has been in serious trouble since Palestinian President Yasser Arafat rejected the peace package offered to him by then prime minister Ehud Barak, with the support of then president Bill Clinton, at Camp David in December 2000.
This was a watershed in Middle East politics -- a massive change for the worse. The Palestinians' refusal to accept -- or even continue to negotiate about -- the most generous and comprehensive Israeli offer since l967 in exchange for an end-of-conflict agreement signified that the Palestinians are not ready to accept Israel's legitimacy.
There is now much more bitterness, fear, and hatred on both sides than in 2000, when the Camp David negotiations failed. The direct and indirect support given by the Palestinian Authority to suicide bombing against civilians in Israel suggested to most Israelis that the Palestinians still view attacks against civilians as a legitimate weapon. The sometimes-brutal Israeli responses to such terrorism further embittered the Palestinians against Israel.
True, the sidelining of Arafat and the appointment of Abu Mazen as the Palestinian prime minister is an important step in the right direction. But Abu Mazen's real power has yet to be tested. Does he really control the murky financial resources of the PLO, which gave Arafat so much real power beyond the formal title of head of the Palestinian Authority?