Middle East roadmap: curves ahead

Posted: May 02, 2003 12:00 AM

The quartet: It conjures up images of strings and harmonies. But the quartet that has undertaken to seek peace between Israel and the Palestinians is something a little different. Of the four, only the United States has shown any sympathy for Israel. The European Union, Russia and the United Nations have been strongly pro-Palestinian for many decades. It's like asking a quartet consisting of Michael Moore, Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon and Bruce Willis to mediate between the United States and Iraq. But never mind, what about the substance?

President Bush, no doubt in part to lighten the burden shouldered by Tony Blair (who met with fierce resistance from his own party over the Iraq war), has agreed to move forward with the "road map" for Middle East peace that will feature a Palestinian State by the year 2005.

The road map was released after the Palestinian Legislative Council agreed to appoint Mahmoud Abbas (more commonly called Abu Mazen) as the new prime minister. Though Mazen is usually characterized in the United States as a "moderate," there are reasons for skepticism on this score. He has declared that the terror campaign against Israel over the past two years was a mistake, but he seems to believe that it was a tactical, not a moral, mistake. As The Wall Street Journal reports, he told a group of Fatah activists, "By resorting to violence, we've played right into the hands of Ariel Sharon and the Israeli right wing."

Mazen dresses in suits instead of fatigues and carries no visible gun. But he has been a top Arafat deputy for more than 30 years. This hardly qualifies him as a new broom. In 1984, he published a book called The Other Face: The Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism, which purports to prove that the Holocaust is a fiction. Mazen claims that fewer than 1 million Jews died during World War II.

Regarding negotiations with Israel, Mazen does not depart much from the Arafat script. He does not think that the last Camp David meeting failed because an opportunity for progress was spurned. As he told the Palestinian newspaper Al-Ayyam: "I say there was no opportunity. No opportunity was offered by anyone. Unacceptable ideas were raised. ..."

Mazen has also reiterated many times his inflexibility on the matter of the so-called "right of return" for Palestinians. Along with Arafat, he insists that any settlement with Israel include the right of millions of Palestinians to return to "their" land in Israel or be compensated for it. He has rejected any suggestion that Israelis be compensated for the land they left in Arab hands in 1948.

(In 1948, roughly half a million Arab refugees fled Israel, and the same number of Jews fled Arab countries for Israel. The Jews were assimilated into the new Jewish state. The Arabs were kept in refugee camps to underscore the Arab world's rejection of Israel's existence and to keep a permanent population of displaced persons burning with hatred for Israel. Though Jordan and Egypt controlled the West Bank and Gaza Strip from 1948 to 1967, they made no move to create a Palestinian state in those regions.)

Obviously, a guarantee of a "right of return" for Palestinians to Israeli land would be impossible for Israel to concede. An influx of millions of hostile Palestinians would kill the Israeli state.

Mazen has departed from Arafat on the matter on internal Palestinian governance and has expressed a desire for greater "transparency." That's encouraging. But he had to struggle hard with Arafat to secure his acquiescence to a new cabinet that would include Arafat critics. So clearly Arafat is not out of the power picture.

Is this deja vu? For years, the United States and the Europeans pried conciliatory statements from Arafat's unwilling lips and then trumpeted these as breakthroughs in the peace process. Today, we've insisted on new Palestinian leadership and are now about to accept an Arafat deputy who has a tenuous grasp on power and no democratic legitimacy.

The genius of President Bush's June 2002 statement of the conditions for progress in the Israel/Palestinian conflict was his recognition that the Palestinians had to make real democratic progress before they would be ready for statehood. Are we now going to make the same mistake we've made in the past and pretend that they have?