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Reading the road map

Whether it is a serious or cynical move, the ‘roadmap’ to peace between Israel and Palestine represents an opportunity to block Sharon’s way writes Richard Burden MP.

As I sit down to write this article just before Easter, Abu Abbas, leader of a group called the Palestine Liberation Front, has just been detained by US forces in Iraq. The PLF is little known these days. Back in the 1980s, it had greater prominence as one of the more hardline and ruthless Palestinian guerrilla organisations. Its hijacking of the Italian cruise-ship, Achille Lauro in 1985 led to the murder of the disabled American passenger, Leon Klinghoffer.

It was an appalling act: one of the many which have been committed by both sides in the Israel/Palestine conflict over the years. But one of the objectives of the Oslo Accords of the 1990s was to promote peace by drawing a line under what had gone before. During that time, Abu Abbas was even allowed by Israel to travel to Gaza on several occasions.

Now, however, the US diplomatic foghorn, tells us that Abu Abbas’ detention is proof-positive that Saddam’s Iraq had been a haven for terrorists; that it is another milestone in the "global war against terror." The US State Department has dismissed what was agreed at Oslo as purely a matter between the Palestinians and Israel. The implication is that it had nothing to do with the USA. So what that the agreement had been endorsed on the White House lawn?

But as Abu Abbas was detained, there was still no sign of the long awaited "Roadmap" for peace in the Middle East which, in a blaze of publicity on the eve of military action against Iraq, President Bush had promised to publish. I don’t know if it will still be so elusive by the time Chartist comes out, but the Roadmap can be viewed, unofficially at www.jmce.org/documents/usroadmap2.htm.

It is not a remarkable document, but it does at least appear to offer a framework of sorts to bring violence to an end and implement UN resolutions. When over 2000 Palestinians and over 700 Israelis have died since September 2000 alone, that must be worth a try.

But is the Roadmap serious or was its promise a cynical ploy to placate Arab opinion during the war in Iraq? The answer is that both are probably true. Although George Bush is assuming its ownership, the Roadmap was actually drawn up jointly by what has become known as the Quartet - the USA, the EU, Russia and the UN. Clearly, without the USA’s active engagement, the Roadmap process will be a road to nowhere. But the USA is not a completely free agent either. So what are the contradictory forces that are now coming into play?

From the start, the Roadmap has been viewed with suspicion by the Sharon government which was reported to have tried to table around 100 changes to it. In the run up to an election the Bush administration is unlikely to want to do anything that upsets Jewish opinion in the States. But today it is wrong to assume that American Jewish opinion is monolithic. The right wing axis of fundamentalist Christians and extreme Zionists may have more sway around the Pentagon than ever, but their world-view worries substantial chunks of liberal Jewish opinion in the States as much as anyone else. Some parts of mainstream Jewish opinion will not waver in giving priority to Israel’s security, but they do not necessarily see that as synonymous with uncritical US backing for Likud intransigence. Encouraging a dialogue with those strands in Jewish opinion in the States and elsewhere is more important than ever.

But the hawks in the US administration and the Sharon Government still have ways of preventing the Roadmap being put into practice. Key to these will be submerging the complexity of what is happening in Palestine into a generalised ‘war on terror’. Straight after 9/11, Sharon labelled Yasser Arafat as Israel’s ‘Bin Laden’. Although probably motivated more by a desire to retrospectively ‘prove’ some of the US’s wilder pre-war claims about Iraq than to support Israel, the Abu Abbas affair will probably play a similar role. Even more significant are the bellicose US warnings to Syria that have been hitting the headlines.

They may not herald any US plan to invade Syria. But they may well foreshadow attacks by Israel on Hizbollah positions in South Lebanon or maybe even military strikes against Syrian targets alleged to be ‘supporting terrorism’.

It is true that Hizbollah is an extreme Islamist organisation which has engaged in attacks on Israel.

However, the hallmark of Hizbollah’s military approach so far has been its focus on (successfully) securing the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon and in clashes around disputed areas along the Israeli/Syrian/Lebanese borders. Their strategy has not been that of the suicide bomb in the market or in the disco, as practised by groups such as Hamas or Islamic Jihad. In the coming weeks, however, it may be convenient for Israel and the US to blur such distinctions. And if action against Hizbollah leads to retaliation, by them or others, the opportunities for even further blurring of such distinctions will grow.

Against this emerging background, the Roadmap may well be consigned to the same back-burner as countless UN resolutions dealing with the Middle East conflict. For Sharon, the appeal of that may be clear. For Bush, the temptation to keep the US electorate gripped by the ongoing ‘war on terror’ may also be a tempting diversion from a domestic agenda that is rather more risky for him.

But whilst all this is going on, innocent people continue to die. The numbers of suicide attacks have dropped dramatically recently but more Israelis will no doubt perish in those that continue, just as more Palestinians will die from Israeli missiles and tank shells.

In the last few months, the casualty lists have also included foreigners. American Rachel Corrie died under the tracks of an Israeli bulldozer as she protested against the demolition of Palestinian homes in Gaza. British citizen Tom Hurndall was shot by Israeli forces as he tried to go to the assistance of a Palestinian family under fire. To the North East from Gaza, Israel continues to construct its "security wall" to separate the West Bank from Israel. Significantly, the wall is being built in the West Bank, not between it and Israel. It will not bring an end to violence, but it does mean more confiscation of land from Palestinian farmers along the route.

There is no doubt that these examples give force to the arguments of those who see the whole Roadmap process as a cynical ploy. To some in the US administration it probably is just that. So scepticism may be realistic.

The trouble is that it does not achieve change. That is why those of us who work for peace with justice in the Middle East must intervene in the debate about the Roadmap and call for its implementation.

It is time to call on the members of the Quartet, individually and collectively, to put their money where their mouths are. Solidarity work with those under occupation is especially important at this time. And so is encouraging those in the Jewish community – in Israel and abroad - who raise their heads above the parapet to say that Sharon’s way is no more the road to security for Israel than it is to end the suffering of the Palestinians.

Richard Burden is Labour MP for Birmingham Northfield and chair of the Labour Israel-Palestine Committee.