The Bush administration hopes the planned withdrawal of Israeli troops and Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and a small part of the West Bank in the coming months will re-energize the Middle East peace process. Some specialists on the region agree that it could provide an opportunity to make progress in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while others feel more direct diplomatic efforts are needed to bring the sides back to the bargaining table after more than four-and-a-half years of violence.
The "road map" peace plan was first proposed by the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia two years ago with the goal of reaching a final and comprehensive settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by this year.
Both Israel and the Palestinians agreed to the plan, although neither side has ever taken any significant steps to implement the road map.
|George W. Bush|
"I remain strongly committed to the vision of two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security," said President Bush.
Earlier this year, Palestinians elected Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, to be their new president following the death of Yasser Arafat last year.
Mr. Abbas has met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and both agreed to a cease-fire to end the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation that erupted in September 2000.
Aaron David Miller, former senior adviser for Arab-Israeli negotiations at the U.S. State Department, is pessimistic about chances that the current Israeli and Palestinian leadership will be able to reach a peace agreement.
"Leadership, Abu Mazen may well have the intentions to do a deal with Israel, but he lacks the capabilities," he said. "The prime minister of Israel, Mr. Sharon, may well have the capabilities, I believe he does have the capabilities, but he lacks the intention."
Martin Indyk, who served twice as U.S. ambassador to Israel, disagrees.
Mr. Indyk says President Abbas has rejected violence and is committed to the peace process, while Prime Minister Sharon is uniquely suited to negotiate for Israel.
"He is the only politician on the horizon in Israel capable of bringing his fractious people behind the kind of deal and the painful compromises that he has spoken about, in theory," he said. "Above all then we have to play the role of shaping the context in which that peacemaking becomes possible, strengthening the leaders on the one hand to make those decisions, and looking out for the strategic context."
Mr. Indyk, currently the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, says the Bush administration must focus its diplomatic efforts in the region on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
"The Bush administration faces a dilemma," he said. "It has a preference for promoting democracy rather than promoting peace in the Middle East. While promoting democracy is an important thing to do, if they do not find a way to do both at the same time, if they do not find a way to understand the way the dots are connected, and to take advantage of it, then we are likely to end up without democracy and without peace."
Robert Malley was former President Bill Clinton's adviser for Arab-Israeli affairs on the National Security Council and is currently a Middle East specialist at the International Crisis Group.
Mr. Malley believes the Bush administration must draft the main points of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, and then sell those ideas directly to the nations and people in the Middle East.
"It is a new form of much more active diplomacy when you only put it on the table once you have commitments from Arab countries that are going to vocally support it," he said. "Then, when it is on the table with the support of the Arabs, Europeans and others, you engage in real public diplomacy over the heads of the leaders, Israelis and Palestinians, to talk directly to their publics. It is not imposing, it is suggesting."
Former Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross, who worked for more than 12 years trying to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, says the Israeli pullout from Gaza offers a rare opening if it is successfully coordinated by both sides.
Mr. Ross argues, however, the window of opportunity is relatively short.
"When the Israelis get out of Gaza it will signal to Palestinians that actually they will give up control," he said. "When Palestinians assume their responsibilities, including on security, it will signal Israelis will fulfill their obligations and making sure that the disengagement is coordinated in a way that insures that it vindicates the logic of this, it has to be approached with a high degree of urgency. We are running out of time. The clock is ticking and if we miss this moment we are not going to have another one for another five or 10 years."
The analysts agree that both parties must take immediate steps to continue building on the positive momentum created by the cease-fire.
They say the Palestinian Authority must step up efforts to impose law and order in the West Bank and Gaza, and stop armed attacks against Israelis.
At the same time, the Middle East specialists say, Israel must change conditions on the ground by lifting more checkpoints and taking other measures to improve the daily life of the Palestinian people.