Diplomatic Diary: Rerouting The Roadmap

It's one thing to be committed to the dream of peace in the Middle East. It's something altogether different commit yourself to overcoming the biggest single roadblock on the Roadmap to a Palestinian state: security.

Security (or the lack of it) is one of those rare things on which everyone agrees in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both sides want it for their own people. Both sides use it to intimidate the enemy. And the whole world knows that there can be no serious peace talks until the streets of Jerusalem and Jenin feel less like a war zone and more like civilization.

The Bush administration has faced this simple truth for its entire time in office. Yet even now--as the president has ordered his most senior foreign policy officials to make the Middle East their highest priority--there are precious few new ideas about how to establish security in the region.

For an administration that prides itself on taking the tough decisions and smashing the orthodoxy of the Clinton years, this seems strange. The White House was euphoric about staging a summit in Aqaba, Jordan, with the Palestinian and Israeli prime ministers earlier this month. It clings on to the Roadmap as the only path for the two sides, even as Hamas and the Israeli army tear each other apart. Yet everyone in the region can recall all too recently other peace proposals, other work plans towards peace and other frameworks for ending the violence. Call it what you like. But summitry and finely crafted plans are relatively cheap in the small tract of land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea. Real action requires something far more radical.

Something like the ideas floated by Martin Indyk, the Clinton-era U.S. ambassador to Israel who now heads the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC. Indyk was at the heart of the Clintonian approach towards peace talks that now prompts such dismissive snorts from Israeli and White House officials. But the Roadmap, and its increasingly frustrating diplomacy, is just another version of that approach.

Instead, Indyk now suggests a break with those years of pressuring both sides to negotiate with one another. What he advocates is quite simply a U.S.-led force to take control of the security that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians can deliver. For that to happen, the Palestinian territories would be placed under an international (but U.S.-led) trusteeship, requiring another trip to our favorite debating shop: the United Nations.

It's a tantalizing repeat of the run-up to the war in Iraq. Only this time you could expect far more success in obtaining the U.N. stamp of approval for a U.S. military intervention. Arab nations would want the U.N.'s legitimacy, while the Israelis would want the Americans to take charge. Even those pesky Europeans would be happy at the sight of an Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian areas. Some might even want to take part in a multinational peacekeeping force under American control. Another twist might be to place a NATO force on the ground to keep the two sides apart while a Palestinian state emerges.

However the chances of such an approach taking root in this White House are close to zero. Speaking in Los Angeles last week, Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, was blunt about the idea of U.S. forces in the Middle East and about the notion of an international trusteeship. "The Palestinian people need new institutions that will lead to a state," she said. "I don't think they need a trusteeship. They need control of their own future." Chief among those state-like responsibilities is establishing security, she explained. "We're on the right course, and the right course is to encourage the Palestinian leadership, along with all of its partners...to take on the important task of statehood--fighting terror, having security forces that are accountable, having financial affairs that are transparent, where they've made a lot of progress, and making life better for their own people."

It's a shame the White House refuses to be bold about security in the Middle East. After all, it has broken at least two taboos in the last two years by speaking openly about the creation of Palestine, and by effectively sidelining Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian president. Rice's response is in some ways understandable. Who wants to see U.S. troops killed and wounded in what seems like an eternal conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians? Is that really worth American blood?

The simple answer is that it's far more in the U.S. national interest to intervene with force in the Middle East than it was in Iraq. U.S. policy towards the region has severely damaged international support for America's foreign policy in the Arab world as well as in Europe. At the same time, that policy has repeatedly failed to bring the two sides to a peaceful resolution. Moreover, the conflict in the region lies at the heart of much of the war against terrorism. Palestinian groups are successfully recruiting foreign suicide bombers, Al Qaeda-style, including--most recently--the two British citizens who blew up a Tel Aviv nightclub.

Allies in Europe are longing to contribute to a U.S.-led Bosnian-style intervention in the Middle East. And if the White House does not pick up the idea soon, less friendly capitals such as Paris might seek to hijack the idea as their own. Instead, the Bush administration should seek to build on the bigger momentum behind the Roadmap. That came not from the region, but from the trans-Atlantic diplomatic quartet that drew up the map in the first place: the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

For the moment, administration officials seem to think the only way they can work with their European and Arab allies is to exhort everyone to condemn terrorism and urge self-restraint on the Israelis. As U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said in Washington this week: "We must not allow, once again, terror and violence, and the response to terror and violence, to destroy the hope that was created in Aqaba," he told the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. "Only by punching through this latest wave of terrorism and continuing down the path that was laid down at Aqaba can Israel and the Palestinians end the scourge of violence, once and for all."

As a holding strategy, those sentiments are fine. Powell will be in Jordan and Israel once again this week, condemning violence and urging all sides to hold on to their hope. But if the Bush administration really wants to punch through the violence, it's going to need American fists to do so.

Diplomatic Diary: Rerouting The Roadmap | News