Road Map

30 June 2003

The ‘Road Map’: A Truce, Not a Peace

By Gwynne Dyer

A cease-fire has rarely been breached faster than the one announced by Palestinian militant groups on Sunday. The two biggest Islamist groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, declared a three-month suspension of attacks on Israeli targets at lunch-time. By Sunday night Yasser Arafat’s ruling Fatah Party had endorsed the cease-fire, and Israeli troops began withdrawing from positions in the northern Gaza Strip that they have occupied since 2000. And on Monday morning gunmen from the Jenin branch of the al-Aqsa Brigades shot dead a foreign truck driver near an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank.

It’s enough to give you whiplash, especially since the al-Aqsa Brigades are formally part of Fatah. The Israeli government’s response, even as its tanks rolled out of Gaza, was to dismiss the cease-fire as a trick: “In the long term this is a ticking bomb,” said Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. So why, in that case, has Israel pulled its troops out of the northern Gaza Strip?

Because it had to give the US government a concession somewhere. Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s National Security Adviser, was in Israel on Sunday complaining publicly about the ‘security fence’ Israel is building in the West Bank, which effectively makes huge chunks of Palestinian land accessible only from the Israeli side. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had to do a little damage control, especially since Rice had also just invited Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Mazen to Washington for the first time — but neither of these men actually thinks this cease-fire is going anywhere.

You could count the number of Israelis and Palestinians who truly believe that the Bush-sponsored ‘road map’ will actually lead to a lasting Middle Eastern peace on the fingers of one badly mutilated hand. However, the leaders on both sides are under strong US pressure at the moment to do things that they don’t want to do or dare not do, so they are yielding a bit and playing for time.

Abu Mazen no doubt would like a permanent peace settlement with Israel and an independent Palestinian state, but he doesn’t believe that Sharon would ever make a deal that Palestinians could live with. Neither is he strong enough yet to suppress the ‘rejectionist’ organisations like Hamas that — in principle, at least — reject any peace deal with Israel: it would trigger a Palestinian civil war, he says, and he is not willing to be the cause of that. But a temporary cease-fire by the militants and would decrease Israeli military pressure on the population and make his own relations with the US a lot easier, so he’s all for it.

Most of the militant Palestinian groups are also ready to take a breather. In three years of this intifada over two thousand Palestinians have been killed, most of them civilians, and almost everyone has had to contend with constant searches and curfews and collapsing living standards.

Ordinary people are very, very tired, and increasingly ambivalent about the militants’ tactics of constant confrontation, which simply bring more Israeli attacks down on their heads.

So Hamas, Islamic Jihad and their secular comrades in the al-Aqsa Brigades could also benefit from a cease-fire for a while. It would let them rebuild their strength in relative peace — and they don’t worry about Abu Mazen and Yasser Arafat selling them out since the presence of Ariel Sharon at the head of the Israeli government is, they believe, a sufficient obstacle to a peace deal.

As for Sharon, he has always understood that his main job is to play for time. At the moment the Bush administration urgently needs the appearance of progress on the ‘road map’, especially since its Iraq adventure is looking pretty sick, so the pressure is on Sharon. But token progress will do for now – like pulling Israeli troops out of the Gaza Strip, or closing down a dozen uninhabited Jewish ‘outposts’ in the West Bank while more are created elsewhere — and in six months or so the White House will be gearing up for the 2004 election and the pressure will be off.

In other words, all the principal players could do with the appearance of progress, or at least with a break from the killing, for the next little while. That is why the murder on Monday of a truck-driver whom an al-Aqsa unit from Jenin mistook for a Jewish settler will not sabotage the new cease-fire.

Everyone who matters on both the Israeli and the Palestinian side understands that the Nablus and Jenin branches of the al-Aqsa Brigades are mavericks that no longer obey their own organisation’s orders, let alone those of Fatah. But somebody from the heavy mob will drop by and have a word in their ears this week, and they will probably see the error of their ways. If not, it will be demonstrated to them more graphically. The cease-fire will hold.

However, that doesn’t mean that the ‘road-map’ peace plan is now going to unfold as intended. There might even be a Palestinian election, the next step in the process after the cessation of violence, and the killing may now stop or at least shrink quite a bit for a time. But there is absolutely no reason to think that it is over.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 10. (“You could…for time”; and “Everyone…hold”