The year 2003 saw continued violence between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as new attempts at peace. The following article describes the most prominent of these peace efforts.
Among the momentous effects of Al-Qaeda’s violent strikes against the United States on September 11, 2001, was a re-orientation of American policy toward the Middle East. The new paradigm adopted in Washington viewed much of the world as being divided into opponents versus supporters of terrorism. Furthermore, the roots of terrorism were ascribed to Mideast regimes that caused social and economic failures while pursuing the interests of small groups of ruling elites.
Palestinian Regime Change
The Bush administration increasingly came to view the regime of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat as a hindrance rather than a partner. Widespread corruption in the Palestinian Authority and its lack of a stable judiciary were problematic, but the convoluted nature of the PA’s multiple security arms–along with mounting evidence that they were involved in or supported terror attacks against Israeli targets alongside militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad–persuaded influential officials in the White House that progress in the Middle East required a form of “regime change” in the Palestinian Authority. The administration advocated replacing Arafat with another Palestinian leader.
President Bush announced a new plan on June 24, 2002, in which Bush stated that the leadership of Yasser Arafat was unacceptable to the United States. The U.S. called for the election of new Palestinian leaders not compromised by terror and for the creation of a truly democratic Palestinian entity. This was balanced by support for the creation of an independent Palestinian state–the first unequivocal and open expression of such support from an American administration. The U.S. also persuaded the so-called Quartet–a group consisting of the European Union, the United Nations Secretariat, Russia, and the United States–to endorse aims consistent with its policies a month later.
Yasser Arafat, who had been under Israeli military siege in his headquarters in Ramallah since April 2002, was obviously not pleased with the suggestion that his leadership be replaced. Not much progress in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations was made while the U.S. waited for signs of a change in Palestinian leadership. It wasn’t until March 2003 that, in response to growing international pressure, Mahmoud Abbas, better known as Abu Mazen, was appointed prime minister of the Palestinian Authority. This solution enabled Arafat to retain the title of President, thus out-ranking Abu Mazen, while the U.S. could claim that the PA indeed had adopted new leadership.
The Road Map is Announced
From that point on, the peace process attained new momentum: The U.S. promised its European allies greater progress in the peace process following the Iraq war, and there was widespread belief that the Abu Mazen government would make a difference. In April 2003 the Quartet announced a “Road Map” for peace, consisting of three phases.
In the first phase, the Palestinian were to undertake an “unconditional” cessation of violence, along with political reform in preparation for statehood. Israel was to withdraw from areas occupied in the years 2000-2003 and freeze all settlement activity.
Phase two, originally scheduled for the second half of 2003, was to be focused on rapid institution building toward an independent Palestinian state with “provisional borders.” In phase three, which was to take place up to 2005, permanent settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute was envisioned.
Phase One of the Road Map appeared on track during most of the summer of 2003. In late June, Abu Mazen announced that he had concluded an agreement with the major Palestinian militant groups, including Islamic Jihad and Hamas, in which they committed to a three-month hiatus in attacks against Israeli targets. Israel for its part agreed to its Phase One commitments in the road map–a gradual withdrawal from areas occupied after September 2000, removal of settlement outposts, and a freeze in new settlement activity. A summit meeting in Aqaba, Jordan, involving Bush, Abu Mazen and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, formally launched the Road Map to peace.
The populations of both sides initially heaved sighs of relief. Gazans had free and unimpeded access on the main roadways of the Gaza Strip for the first time in nearly three years. A number of Palestinians who had been held in Israeli prisons came home. Israeli military authorities reported a steep drop in hostile activities directed against Israelis, and the night life in Israeli cities registered an increase, as people felt their personal security was at its highest in years. Sharon and Abu Mazen held several successful personal meetings aimed at implementing further confidence-building steps.
Phase One Falters
Despite the optimism, Israeli leaders registered disappointment at the fact that Abu Mazen’s government consistently refused to confront Hamas and Islamic Jihad directly. The hudna (cease fire) was technically not an agreement between Israel and any Palestinian groups; rather, it was an agreement between the Palestinian Authority and the Islamic organizations, and it granted the militants immunity from being disarmed.
Israel became convinced that the militant groups were using the cease-fire as a chance to regroup and re-arm. Israel on several occasions sent forces to West Bank towns to arrest suspected terrorists, raising tensions and causing the Palestinians to question Israel’s commitment to the Road Map.
On Aug. 13, 2003, a suicide bomber blew up a Jerusalem bus carrying observant Jews returning the Western Wall, killing 21, many of them small children. This terrorist action, for which both Islamic Jihad and Hamas claimed responsibility, seemed to some Israeli leaders to confirm what they had been saying all along: Without firm action to eradicate entirely the infrastructure of militant Islamic organizations, there can be no peace. If the Palestinian Authority will not take action against the militants, many felt Israel should do so. Israel announced that it would hunt down the leaders of the Islamic groups, leading those organizations to declare an end to the hudna. As the summer of 2003 came to a close, the Road Map to peace appeared as blocked as ever.