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Middle East Conflict Continues to Smolder

This story is part of VOA's 2003 in Review series

The Middle East has been front and center in world events throughout the course of this year. While Iraq was undoubtedly the primary focus, much attention also centered on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and prospects for ending it. With one official international peace plan, a few unofficial initiatives and a potentially major shift by Israel's rightwing government toward unilateral action, peace remains elusive.

The war in Iraq gave rise to much speculation about the reshaping of the Middle East with greater democracy, more open societies and greater economic development.

For a time, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict moved well into the background. But, after the invasion of Iraq, the United States began to push for a resolution of the dispute via the road map peace plan. The initiative was first unveiled and delivered to both sides the end of April.

Then, President Bush himself stepped in. On June 4, he stood alongside Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and then Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas in Aqaba, Jordan.

"All here today now share a goal," he said. "The Holy Land must be shared between a state of Palestine and a state of Israel, living in peace with each other and with every nation of the Middle East."

Developed mainly by the United States with participation from Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, the road map is based on several previous unimplemented proposals for a truce and calls for an end to violence and resumption of negotiations that would lead to a final peace agreement and an independent Palestinian state by 2005.

At Aqaba, both Israel and the Palestinians endorsed the road map.

Mr. Sharon vowed to begin to tackle the contentious issue of Jewish settlements.

"I want to reiterate that Israel is a society governed by the rule of law," said Ariel Sharon. "Thus, we will immediately begin to remove unauthorized outposts."

Mr. Abbas called for an end to armed resistance against Israeli occupation.

"We will exert all of our efforts to end the militarization of the intifada and we will succeed," he said.

But neither side did much to start implementing the road map. And each side blamed the other for the failure.

Retired Israeli general Shlomo Brum, a senior researcher and political analyst at Tel Aviv's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, says the road map had an inherent flaw.

"The road map is a road map to nowhere because the third stage of the road map is so ambiguous and so unclear and doesn't supply real motivation to the two parties involved to implement it because it's not clear from the road map where they are getting to," he said.

And so the cycle of violence continued, suicide bombings that killed and maimed Israelis and targeted assassinations of Palestinian militants that often left innocent civilians dead as well.

All sides continued to talk about the importance of the road map, but other issues intervened.

Prime Minister Abbas resigned after serving just over 100 days in office, frustrated mainly by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's unwillingness to relinquish control of the Palestinian security services.

Mr. Arafat chose a new prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, but gave no indication that he would have more power than his predecessor.

And for several months, American envoys stopped coming to the region. The road map seemed hopelessly stalled.

But something else was happening outside the usual political channels. Two former Israeli and Palestinian ministers negotiated an unofficial settlement to the conflict and presented it with great fanfare as the Geneva Accord. Unlike the road map, the Geneva Accord goes to the most divisive issues between the two sides and suggests concrete compromises.

In broad strokes, the Geneva initiative calls for a demilitarized Palestinian state in all of the Gaza Strip and almost all of the West Bank, with part of Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital and the other part the Israeli capital.

The holy sites would be shared. And, the Palestinians would, in effect, give up any right to return to what is now the state of Israel. About four million Palestinian refugees claim the right. They are people who fled Israel and the descendants of those who fled.

The co-authors of the Geneva Accord, former Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo and one-time Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin call it a people-to-people initiative.

Yasser Abed Rabbo: "What we did in this document, we found the solution for all the issues that many people from both sides, leaders, politicians, were saying, 'No, don't touch these issues. These are the untouchables.' "

Yossi Beilin: "They say, 'You are traitors, collaborate with the enemy at a time of war.' And I can tell you, you won't find better patriots than ourselves because we are trying to save our peoples."

The initiative was quickly denounced by Prime Minister Sharon, who called it subversive and damaging to Israel. But the plan garnered praise from the international community, including from members of the Bush administration.

The result was more pressure on Mr. Sharon. Three years of violence with no end in sight brought criticism even from his own army chief of staff and from several retired senior security chiefs. His standing in public opinion polls was dropping.

There was also growing international criticism of the Israeli government's continued construction of a security barrier between Israelis and Palestinians. Israel says the barrier is vital to keep out suicide bombers. Palestinians say it's a cover for Israel to confiscate more land.

And, there was increasingly blunt criticism from Israel's staunchest ally, the United States.

During his visit to London in November, President Bush outlined what Mr. Sharon needed to do.

"Israel should freeze settlement construction, dismantle unauthorized outposts, end the daily humiliation of the Palestinian people and not prejudice final negotiations with the placement of walls and fences," said President Bush.

With pressure mounting, Mr. Sharon spoke increasingly of unilateral steps his government may take if no peace agreement is reached with the Palestinians.

Mr. Sharon has repeatedly said he wants a peace deal and is willing to make concessions to reach one. But he has also said that Israel cannot wait forever.

Indications are unilateral steps would include annexing some occupied land and giving up other parts of it to the Palestinians, but not nearly as much as they would want.

Palestinians reject any unilateral Israeli action if it is meant to be a substitute for a negotiated settlement.

And so, as the year ends is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict closer to being resolved? Palestinian political scientist Ali Jerbawi of Birzeit University in Ramallah thinks not.

Pace: "So, looking into the crystal ball, what do you foresee for next year?"

Jarbawi: "Nothing much. Maybe Sharon would go into his unilateral actions - some withdrawals here and there, but no peace process at all. I don't think that with this government in Israel, we can reach a peaceful solution."

Israeli political analyst Shlomo Brum agrees not much is likely to happen in 2004, in part because of American preoccupation with elections at home in November.

"The only thing that the U.S. administration is expecting of Sharon is not to do too much harm, not to disturb the [U.S.] elections," said Shlomo Brum. "So, because of that he doesn't have real motivation to implement any plans. So, what I see in my crystal ball is more talk - no more than talk."

The authors and supporters of the various peace initiatives hope that they can win increasing public support which in turn will put increasing pressure on the Israeli and Palestinian leadership to do more, or to risk being replaced by new leaders who will.