MONTREAL – President George W. Bush’s closest international ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, arrived in Washington on Friday arguing he can still make sense of the “roadmap” to peace between Israelis and Palestinians. But U.S. peace groups say all traces of that route were lost in a Bush deal with Israeli leader Ariel Sharon earlier this week.
“Instead of telling Prime Minister Sharon that it’s OK now to violate international law and United Nations resolutions, President Bush should be pressuring both sides to stem the violence and start talking again,” said Jim Winkler, general secretary of the United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society.
“President Bush has effectively told the world that what Israel has taken by force from the Palestinians is now acceptable. This is a roadmap to war,” he added in a statement Thursday signed by more than a dozen churches united as the Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP).
In a letter to Prime Minister Sharon, who visited Washington on Wednesday, Bush assented to the Israeli leader’s plan to withdraw all settlements from the disputed Gaza Strip while retaining larger settlements in the West Bank the first time a U.S. president has ignored that the lands have been the subject of legal contention since they were seized by Israel in 1967.
Bush also backed Sharon’s assertion that any returning refugees must settle in territory now occupied by Palestinians and would have no claim on land seized by Israel since they left the country.
Blair said Thursday that the roadmap is still valid, but echoed the argument of Sharon and Bush that “changes on the ground” made Sharon’s new plan imperative.
“Until we manage to get in place the basic elements of security so that we can then start the co-operative, bilateral approach that the roadmap sets out, then inevitably we’re going to be looking for other things that can allow us to make some progress,” Blair told reporters after meeting U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
The roadmap stipulates that Israelis and Palestinians take concurrent and parallel steps en route to creating an independent and viable Palestinian state whose borders would be determined in negotiations between the two parties alongside Israel by 2005.
While Palestinians must halt violence against Israel and launch economic and political reforms, Israel is required to start withdrawing its forces from key West Bank towns and ease its grip on the Occupied Territories by, among other steps, freezing settlement activity and dismantling the scores of illegal settlements that have been created by Israeli settlers since the Palestinian Intifadah began in September 2000.
Since the roadmap was unveiled last year, Palestinians have chosen new leaders. Yet attacks against Israel have continued, while Israel has started construction of a mammoth wall, ostensibly for security reasons, which would annex large chunks of Palestinian land.
Annan himself panned the Bush-Sharon accord. “The secretary-general reiterates his position that final status issues should be determined in negotiations between the parties based on relevant Security Council resolutions,” his spokesman said in a statement Wednesday.
“He strongly believes that they should refrain from taking any steps that would pre-empt the outcome of such talks.”
While the Palestinian authority of Yasser Arafat simply called the U.S. position “biased”, a leader of the Hamas group said the letters signal the failure of the peace process, and “only prove that armed resistance is the only option for the Palestinians”.
One peace activist said the deal certainly narrows Palestinians’ immediate options. “I think the big loss here for both the Israelis and the Palestinians is that America in the future (cannot) be a broker of negotiations,” said Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now.
“To have the U.S. come out and make some predetermined statements about these issues really eliminates any sort of reason for the Palestinians to sit down” and negotiate, he told IPS.
While Roth did not believe the upcoming U.S. presidential election played a large role in this week’s entente calling Bush’s Mideast policy “reactive” one church spokesman said it was designed to boost the standing of Sharon, who is under investigation for corruption and must still push his plan for unilateral withdrawal through his divided Likud Party.
“The president’s decision, contrary to the public, long-standing positions of many U.S. Protestant and Orthodox churches and of the Catholic Church, is de facto a rejection of international law,” said CMEP Executive Director Corinne Whitlatch. “He has clearly shown that the U.S. is not as concerned for the rights of the Palestinian people as it is for the political goals of Prime Minister Sharon.”
“We had hoped that the Gaza withdrawal could be a first forward step toward peace,” Whitlatch added Thursday, but Bush’s “repeated assurance that he wants a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel is losing credibility. The president’s blatant disregard for Palestinian and Arab participation and sentiment places a future peace and our own security at risk.”
In a prescient article prior to this week’s meeting, James Zogby of the Arab American Institute wrote that the then rumoured deal would enable Israel to “protect huge Israeli settlements, which will now be linked even more directly with pre-1967 Israel. This is what is known as establishing ‘facts on the ground’.”
“At the same time, Sharon will now be able to ‘withdraw’ from a devastated and impoverished Gaza while maintaining full control over all of Gaza’s borders and reserving the right to re-enter and wreak havoc whenever Israel deems it necessary to do so.”
“The U.S. will maintain that this is not a final agreement, only a temporary measure and that the roadmap is still operative,” added Zogby. “But the reality on the ground will be quite different. The U.S. letter will enable Sharon to lock in Palestinian despair and kill the hope for a just peace.”
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