Rice meets Abbas as the road map to peace lies in tatters

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The Independent Online

On 24 June 2002, President George Bush strode into the White House Rose Garden and announced to the world his vision of a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians.

The Bush speech, some 30 drafts in the making, put the onus on the Palestinians to enact democratic reforms - in the vain hope that they would ditch their veteran president, Yasser Arafat. But, nevertheless, it gave rise to the road map for peace, which bound Israel and the Palestinians to a timetable that was meant to lead to a "final and comprehensive settlement" by 2005.

With that deadline long past, the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, was shuttling between the Palestinian leadership and Israeli government yesterday in an attempt to put the peace process back on the rails.

The three-phase road map, guaranteed by the US, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, grouped together as the Quartet, never even fulfilled the promises in its first phase under which the Palestinians were to rein in the militants, and Israel to freeze settlement building. Israel took it upon itself to execute Palestinian militant leaders, and forged ahead with settlement building on the West Bank.

Israel's unilateral steps consigned the Quartet to the role of bystander. In three and a half years, the road map has led nowhere. Despite Israel's pullout from Gaza, the territory's 1.4 million Palestinians remain hemmed inside a prison by an Israeli blockade backed by tanks and warplanes. International sanctions have brought hardship to government employees whose wages have been unpaid for months.

But the shock waves from the Lebanon war and Iraq have brought a new push for Middle East peace. Tony Blair has pledged to make reviving the peace process a personal priority during his remaining months in office. The Prime Minister has discussed the Middle East conflict, Lebanon and the broader issue of terrorism with the leaders of Pakistan, Turkey and Spain in the past week.

While Ms Rice was in the region, the International Crisis Group published a statement yesterday signed by 135 former world leaders, including John Major and Jimmy Carter, calling for "fresh thinking and the injection of new political will" to resolve the conflict. "As long as the conflict lasts, it will generate instability and violence in the region and beyond," it said.

And more ominously, a group calling itself al-Qa'ida in Palestine posted a five-minute video on the internet attacking those who "work in the service of the Jews". Israeli intelligence has said in the past that al-Qa'ida does not have a foothold in the Palestinian territories.

Ms Rice, who was lectured on Tuesday by the leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia about the link between the Palestinian conflict and others in the Middle East, acknowledged Palestinian hardship after talks with President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. "I told the President we are very concerned, of course, about the humanitarian conditions," she said. "I said we would redouble our efforts to improve conditions for the Palestinian people."

But she gave no sign of any softening in the administration's stance that could lead to the lifting of the international economic sanctions aimed at forcing the Islamic Hamas government to recognise Israel and renounce violence. Mr Blair made it clear last month that, if a unity government took such steps, do- nor countries would re-engage.

Mr Abbas said yesterday that his attempts to form a coalition government with Hamas were at an end, amid factional fighting between Fatah and Hamas. He hinted that he might fire the government using his constitutional powers and call fresh elections, but that is an initiative that could backfire against Fatah, still in denial about their election loss.

Ms Rice is seeking to bolster the authority of the Palestinian President who, despite his marginalised role, remains the only possible interlocutor for Israel. Hamas is branded as a terrorist organisation by Israel.

The Hamas Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh, was scathing about her visit, saying she "cares only to rearrange this region and to rearrange the Palestinian scene in a way that serves the American and Israeli agenda."

Yet the framework set down in the road map remains the only game in town. "We've not shelved the road map. Everyone knows what we are aiming for," said a Downing Street source, who noted that Mr Blair intends to return to the region at an unspecified date. "We need small steps, confidence-building, and a process of dialogue." Mr Blair's standing in the Middle East is at a low ebb, however, because of his association with US policy.

"Initiatives come and go. It's very difficult to see a way out at the moment," said a Western diplomat in Jerusalem.

THE ROAD MAP TO NOWHERE

Four years after George Bush unveiled his Middle East plan, Condoleezza Rice arrived to find peace as far away as ever

The road-map promise

Palestinian "terror infrastructure" to be dismantled and "visible efforts" made to arrest attackers of Israelis.

What happened

Suicide bombings against Israelis continue despite publication of the road map, backed by George Bush. Israel begins building "separation barrier", which is condemned as an illegal land grab. Palestinian government undermined by Israel, which targets militants.

The promise

Israel to freeze all settlement activity and dismantle illegal outposts.

What happened

Some illegal outposts are dismantled although settlers return. Governments of Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert forge ahead with settlement blocs on occupied land in the West Bank. Unilateral Israeli moves have created new "facts on the ground" which will complicate future final status negotiations on a two-state solution.

The promise

"Free, fair and open" elections to be held in Palestinian territories.

What happened

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is elected in January 2005. But rival Hamas wins 2006 elections. Abbas's authority is irreparably weakened, and talks with Hamas on coalition government break down.

The promise

Creation of an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders in 2003.

What happened

Unilateral pullout from Gaza and part of the West Bank is completed in September 2005. But Gaza subjected to economic blockade and military incursions continue. Ehud Olmert unveils unilateral separation plan, which threatens to leave the separation barrier as a new border.

The promise

Two-state solution for Israel and Palestinians, to be achieved by 2005, to lead to comprehensive peace.

What happened

Israel launches full-scale war in July after Hizbollah militia in Lebanon, allied to Syria and Iran, capture two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border incursion.

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