By Saul Singer, June 13, 2003
As another mass murder seems to snuff out the Aqaba summit’s ray of hope,
the unavoidable question screams out: When will this ever stop? At first glance,
the road map now looks like a sick joke, a pathetic attempt to impose order on
a conflict that has no end.
Yet within this chaos, a new structure is emerging that could well determine the
sequence of events in the years to come, and their ultimate outcome for Israel.
This structure is etched in invisible ink on the road map. Once described, it can
be seen out in the open, but in practice it is Bush’s and Sharon’s secret plan.
Much attention has been paid to the flawed details of the road map: its
obsessive evenhandedness between the aggressor and the victim, its vague
demands of the Palestinians and concrete demands of Israel, the short shrift
played to Palestinian democratization, and so on. But the most fundamental
component of the road map, one that is staring us in the face, is barely
mentioned: the creation of a provisional Palestinian state before final-status
In style, the road map repeats all the mistakes of Oslo. In structure it makes
one critical change: In Oslo, Palestinian statehood was to be the end result; in
the road map, the state comes in the middle.
What difference does this make? In essence, it means a choice has been made
between the gradualist and the “big bang” schools. The gradualists believe the
Arab-Israeli struggle may never be resolved, because the Arab world will never
accept the Jewish people’s right to its own state, only to Israel’s de facto
As David Ben-Gurion put it in 1919, “Everybody sees the problem in the
relations between the Jews and the [Palestinian] Arabs. But not everybody sees
that there’s no solution to it. There is no solution! … I don’t know any Arabs
who would agree to Palestine being ours even if we learn Arabic … and I have
no need to learn Arabic. On the other hand, I don’t see why “Mustafa” should
learn Hebrew. … There’s a national question here. We want the country to be
ours. The Arabs want the country to be theirs.”
Ariel Sharon is a disciple of Ben-Gurion and sees the conflict in roughly these
terms. This does not mean that Sharon is being dishonest when he talks about
peace. It means that the peace Sharon is talking about is not a full “solution” to
the conflict, but a form of livable cold war.
The “big bang” school, by contrast, believes the Arab world has fundamentally
decided to accept Israel, and therefore a peace agreement simply awaits
granting the Palestinians the right terms. The Oslo agreement was built
according to this paradigm. Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton were its ultimate
practitioners, in that they believed the Palestinians could be induced to drop all
further claims and make a full peace with Israel.
It is fashionable on the Right to claim that the road map is worse than Oslo.
What is meant by this is that, under the road map, the Palestinians get a state
first, before they have to make peace with Israel. In this view, the road map is
the latest, most serious step in Israel’s serial capitulation to terrorism.
“The only consistent element in the Israeli position has been the
constant retreat from its stated positions on issues that are critical to the
country’s future. Evidently, terrorism works,” writes reclusive Likud scion
Begin is largely right. Terrorism is what brought Yasser Arafat to power and is
bringing the Palestinians a state. But here’s the secret. For Sharon, the road
map’s “independent Palestinian state with provisional borders” is not at the
bottom of the slippery slope, but a brake that prevents precisely the slide that
The deal Sharon is offering the Palestinians is a partial state in exchange for a
partial peace. You don’t want to renounce the “right of return” and accept
Israel as a Jewish state? Fine, says Sharon, but for that all you get is a
truncated state whose borders are controlled by Israel.
Why would the Palestinians accept such a deal? Because they know that the
only alternatives are the status quo, in which both sides bleed indefinitely, or
making a full peace, neither of which they want.
Sharon’s real objective is to get to the middle phase of the road map and park
there until the Arab world is ready for peace, which may or may not ever
happen. It is a reasonably comfortable place for a gradualist to be. Palestine
may choose to be belligerent, but Israel will have a provisional border to defend
and a state to hold accountable.
The risk of this plan is that statehood will be no more of a firewall against
pressure to fulfill Palestinian demands than all the other agreements that the
Palestinians sign and the world ignores. Eventually, the Palestinians will use
terror again to force their next objective: a full Israeli unilateral withdrawal,
without having to concede the demand of “return” to Israel.
The protections against this dangerous scenario are Israeli will and the trust of
the United States. Sharon feels that he and Bush can be trusted to ensure that
the dates in the road map do not mean that Israel will be forced to fill out
Palestine’s borders even if it turns out to be a terrorist state. Whether future
Israeli and American leaders can be so trusted is another question.
As a good gradualist, Sharon is not troubled by the fact that a full peace is not
obtainable in the near future. In 1938, Ben-Gurion said, “The conflict had lasted
30 years, and is liable to continue for perhaps hundreds more.” But Ben-Gurion
could never have imagined that US divisions would role into Baghdad and
topple an Iraqi despot, and that other radical regimes would be in the sights of
an American president.
While Israel is betting on rolling regime changes, the Palestinians are betting on
demography. As long as America and Israel don’t abandon their own interests,
Sharon has the better bet.