As soon as the Israeli government announced its acceptance of the Roadmap, Ariel Sharon was showered with praise, and the Americans described the Israeli decision as a “significant step forward.” Moreover, the U.S. administration decided to send a team to coordinate the steps taken by the Israelis and Palestinians to implement the plan, while President George Bush crowned his efforts by deciding to visit the region to attend two summits: one in Sharm Al Sheikh gathering Arab leaders supportive of the U.S. plan, and the other in Aqaba, grouping the U.S. president and Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers, in addition to Jordan’s King Abdullah.
President Bush is not likely to face any real obstacles in Sharm Al Sheikh, where he intends to urge Arab leaders to modernize their political systems. This is especially true since Arab leaders will be anxious to be reassured about their future. Yet he is likely to face serious difficulties in achieving his objectives in Aqaba, where he will need considerable talent to convince Sharon that the Roadmap, in all its three phases, offers many more advantages to Israel than to the Palestinians. Bush knows fully well that one quarter of the 14 reservations made by Sharon about the Roadmap are enough to freeze its implementation. Bush is also aware that it may be difficult to issue a joint communiqu? if he gives in to Sharon’s stance, which is mainly focused on the 14 reservations.
There is no doubt that the Aqaba summit is a main juncture testing Sharon’s intentions and his real position from the Roadmap. He is expected to sign a declaration committing Israel to the full implementation of the Roadmap and accept an independent Palestinian state without making any reference to his reservations. Moreover, he is expected to agree to a ceasefire, ending the assassinations and arrests as well as dismantling the settlements created after September 2000, and withdrawing the Israeli army to its original positions.
Bush is fully aware that the government of Palestinian PM Mahmoud Abbas is weak and has yet to gain the support of the Palestinian people, and that it is in desperate need of tangible measures to demonstrate its credibility to the Palestinian people. The early discussions that were held by Europeans with Arafat and Abbas were evidence that the Palestinian prime minister could not agree to a joint communiqu? that ignores the creation of a Palestinian state as mentioned in the Roadmap. Still, Abbas cannot agree to Israeli demands such as changing the Palestinian leadership or linking the redeployment of Israeli troops to Palestinian security measures. It is not possible to ignore the timetable of the Roadmap and allow Israel to continue to deal with the Palestinians in the same way it dealt with them before the Aqaba summit.
On the other hand, the Palestinian camp will come under strong American-Israeli pressure to end the military activities against Israelis. In fact, the fact that Sharon hands over to the Palestinians the security in Beit Hanun and Beit Lahya is a test to the abilities of Abbas and Mohammad Dahlan to control the situation on the ground. And the chances of success are considerable, especially since Hamas agreed to a ceasefire in principle.
Still, no one can imagine that emperor Bush will fail at the summits of Sharm Al Sheikh and Aqaba. There is no doubt that a joint communiqu?, formulated by the Americans, will be issued by the first summit and enthusiastically embraced by the Arabs. Also, Tony Blair’s visit to Iraq implies that President Bush may also visit that country in order to launch his reelection campaign from the Baghdad Airport.
And while the Palestinian camp has no interest in causing the failure of the Aqaba summit, the problems that Bush faces in taming Sharon can be overcome through discussions, especially since Sharon has proven that he is neither stupid nor reckless, and that he gives the utmost priority to his country’s relations with the U.S.
I doubt that President Bush is set on implementing the entire Roadmap. During his reelection campaign, he is not obliged to ignore the Israeli reservations especially that his advisors have promised to take them into account during the implementation process. Also, the vast majority of Congressmen urged him not to exert pressure on Israel. Still, it is difficult to see how a government representing the extreme right-wing Israelis can implement the Roadmap fully according to the established timetable. The most that such a government may commit itself to is to implement the first phase of the plan.