A Delicate Balance in the Middle East

The "road map" to peace in the Middle East is new. But there are a still a lot of bumps in the road.

Bush administration officials often point out that the success of the Middle East peace process depends on the willingness of the parties involved to make peace. "We'll be there. We'll be involved in this process," National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack said. "But it is up to them to do it."

That is undeniably true. But success depends just as much on the commitment of the president of the United States. In the view of Rob Malley of the International Crisis Group, "The question mark really is whether the United States is going to be able to have the determination and commitment that it has shown, for instance, in Iraq to push the parties to do the minimum level of things they need to do."

Why is that a question mark? Because President Bush has given mixed signals. For most of his first year in office, Bush avoided becoming involved in the Middle East. President Clinton had pushed hard for a peace deal and failed to get one. So what could Bush do?

Then, shortly after 9/11, Bush went to the United Nations and startled Israel's supporters by endorsing a Palestinian state. "President Bush is the first president of the United States to ever publicly endorse a Palestinian state," Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, noted. "He did it two weeks after 9/11 occurred, essentially rewarding terrorism after we had the worst terrorist attack we ever endured."

On June 24, 2002, the president gave a Rose Garden speech in which he delighted Israel's supporters by taking a strong pro-Israel line. Bush said, "The United States will not support the establishment of a Palestinian state until its leaders engage in a sustained fight against the terrorists and dismantle their infrastructure."

Now the U.S. has published a road map that calls on Israel to start making concessions right away. "I think he is really ignoring his June 24th speech and has decided to put more pressure on Israel to make concessions up front," Klein complained.

Bush is under intense, conflicting pressures from two sides. The diplomatic pressure is to push the peace process forward. It's coming from the Arab world, which is suspicious of U.S. intentions in the Middle East. It's also coming from the British, who want a payoff for their support on Iraq. "I want to thank the president for the impetus he has given to the two-state solution in the Middle East ... and for his decision that the road map be published," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in Northern Ireland last month.

Diplomatic pressure is also coming from the U.S. State Department. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said in his congressional testimony on April 30, "I had an opportunity to call both prime ministers [of Israel and the Palestinian Authority] early this morning and to encourage them to do everything in their respective powers to make sure we get a good start down this path to peace."

On the other side, Bush is facing powerful political pressure not to push Israel for concessions. The pressure is coming from both Jewish and conservative Christian organizations. "Virtually every major Jewish organization and lots of the large Christian organizations are very upset about having any sort of concessions to the Palestinian Authority, this terrorist regime, until there is a transformation of that regime," Klein said.

What are those organizations planning to do about it? Take out a series of newspaper ads signed by prominent conservatives like former U.N. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick. Demonstrate in front of the White House when Mahmoud Abbas, the new Palestinian prime minister, meets with President Bush. And work with the House and Senate to develop an independent congressional monitoring committee to review Palestinian compliance. A majority of lawmakers—87 senators and 297 House members—have already signed letters arguing that the Palestinians should take more steps to end terrorism before Israel makes any concessions.

David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says that the road map differs from past peace plans in that "it is supposed to be 'performance-based'—reciprocal steps by both Israelis and Palestinians—as opposed to strictly timetable-driven." But who should judge each party's performance?

Conservatives are outraged at the notion that the responsibility may be shared with Europe, Russia, and the United Nations. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich complained, "The State Department invention of a 'quartet' for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations defies everything the United States has learned about France, Russia, and the United Nations. After the bitter lessons of the last five months, it is unimaginable that the United States would voluntarily accept a system in which the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia could routinely outvote President Bush's positions."

Some conservatives are asking why Bush is even listening to Tony Blair on this.

Didn't Blair meet with the devil himself—Bill Clinton—at the same time he was supporting President Bush in Iraq?

If President Bush pushes Israel too hard, he could pay a political price—with his conservative base, and with Jewish voters. But if the president does not keep the pressure on, the road map will lead nowhere. And he will have a diplomatic price to pay.