Mahmoud Abbas
Mahmoud Abbas; drawing by David Levine

As the Iraqi war has wound down, the United States has been promoting a “road map” intended to solve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Together with the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia, the US defines the road map’s destination as “a final and comprehensive settlement of the Israel–Palestinian conflict by 2005.” The “settlement, negotiated between the parties, will,” they hope, “result in the emergence of an independent, democratic, and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbors.”

Phase I of the map requires the Palestinians “to undertake an unconditional cessation of violence,” while “Israel freezes all settlement activity” and “immediately dismantles settlement outposts erected since March 2001.” In Phase II, if the mutual security and many other measures of Phase I have been fulfilled, “an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders” will be created by December 2003. In Phase III, a final peace treaty will be signed sometime during the year 2005, which will resolve borders and the status of Jerusalem, refugees, and the settlements—and the Arab–Israeli conflict will be over.

While postwar Iraq remains in chaos, we can wonder whether the road map is realistic, or whether it is a leap into wishful thinking. Recent developments, including the hedged acceptance of the plan by Ariel Sharon’s cabinet and the meeting on June 4 of President Bush with Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas in Jordan, suggest that the President is now more committed to making the road map work than was hitherto supposed. But can he?


In late April, in the north of the Gaza Strip, near the Mediterranean Sea, I visited the town of Beit Hanoun, which has been devastated by the Israeli army, and the surrounding countryside. Following several suicide bombings and other violent episodes, the army, according to the mayor of Beit Hanoun, destroyed twenty-five water wells and the sewage system, which resulted in drinking water being mixed with raw sewage. Standing near a blasted bridge I could see jagged, broken sewage pipes emptying into a pool of fetid water. “When we repair the bridges and the pipes,” the mayor said, “the Israelis bomb them again.”

In the northern Gaza Strip many houses had been destroyed or badly damaged. Paved roads were broken up by Israeli bulldozers; great tracts of farmland—citrus groves, olive trees, greenhouses as well—were uprooted to create no man’s lands around the Israeli settlements of Alai Sinai, Nevets Sala, and Nisanit. Wooden watchtowers near the settlements protruded from the barren earth; I saw Israeli soldiers watching us through binoculars from the crests of sandy hills. Among the shanties of tin and plaster in the refugee camp of Jabaliya, I met an elderly gentleman beside the rubble of his house, which had recently been destroyed by an Israeli tank. “Do you hate the Israelis?” I asked him. “No,” he answered, “I hate what they’ve done.”

A week later, I was in Tel Aviv, standing outside Mike’s Place, a pub facing the sea which had been blown up the night before by a suicide bomber, killing two Israelis and a foreigner, wounding sixty others, and causing much wreckage; body parts and blood had been spattered about. Crowds of Israelis were gathered there, weeping quietly and hugging one another.

I returned to Jerusalem, where Sharon’s government has been tightening its grip on the eastern, largely Palestinian sector of the city. The destruction of Palestinian dwellings and the building of Israeli houses continue inexorably. “The construction of over a dozen Jewish enclaves in predominantly Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem is aimed at blocking any possibility of dividing Jerusalem in the future,” The Jerusalem Post reported on April 8. A Palestinian urban specialist, Nazmi al-Ju’be, describes how the Israeli “Ring Road” that “encircles the current borders of the Jerusalem Municipality” connects the Israeli settlements surrounding Arab Jerusalem with largely Jewish West Jerusalem. The road also cuts off from Jerusalem the Arab neighborhoods just outside the municipal borders, making them “encircled islands separated from their urban surroundings.” Israeli settlements in eastern suburbs effectively detach the Palestinian West Bank from Jerusalem. The final result of this strategy “will be the transformation of Arab Jerusalem into a ghetto and slum.”1 Extremely difficult residency regulations also encourage Palestinians to emigrate.

I left for the town of Qalqilya, in the northern West Bank, on the internationally recognized 1967 border with Israel and only ten miles from Tel Aviv. It took me six hours to travel a distance of fifty miles from Jerusalem, since the route was blocked by four Israeli checkpoints. Outside Qalandiya, we had to wait in the hot bus for more than two hours for no apparent reason; along the way, we were twice ordered to get out of the bus to show our papers to Israeli soldiers, who were correct but gruff toward the Palestinian passengers. To me the inconvenience was mild, but my fellow passengers reminded me that they must endure such humiliations every day. Otherwise they were silent and calm. Moving on, we passed several Israeli settlements crowning nearby hills; the roads on the way up to them were busy with trucks carrying lumber and cement, suggesting that the settlements—more than 190 in the West Bank, all forbidden by UN resolutions and the Fourth Geneva Convention—continue to expand.


There are now more than 200,000 settlers in the Occupied Territories. Amram Mitzna, until recently chairman of the Labor Party, protested again in early May against the growing settlements. “They continue to create facts on the ground,” he said, “in total contradiction of the things the prime minister has been telling the public.”

Qalqilya, a dusty, bleak West Bank town of 40,000, has been devastated by the construction of the new high Israeli “separation fence” intended to reach from Jenin in the north southward past Tulkarm, Qalqilya, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Hebron, and points beyond. The Israelis call Qalqilya “a hotel for terrorists,” and in fact at least five of the dozens of suicide bombers have used Qalqilya as a transit station en route to Israel.

By building the separation fence, Israel clearly plans to expropriate 2 percent of the northern West Bank during the first stage alone; Palestinian specialists predict that the fence will eventually have the effect of turning over to the Israelis at least 10 percent of the entire West Bank. In some places it runs along the “green line,” the 1967 border, but elsewhere penetrates deeply, up to several miles, into the West Bank. Around Qalqilya, in order to accommodate the fence, the Israelis have leveled farmland, fruit trees, olive groves, plant nurseries, and greenhouses.

Some members of the mayor’s staff took me to see the parts of the fence that run near the town. It is placed in a huge gash in the land between 65 and 110 yards wide. Above a barbed-wire barrier, you see a towering concrete wall nearly 30 feet high with watchtowers nearby; a security road runs alongside it and trenches full of rocks, and more barbed wire, all creating a cordon sanitaire. Near Qalqilya the fence deviates from the green line to protect the Jewish settlements of Zufin, Alfe Menashe, and Oranit, in effect incorporating them into Israel proper while isolating the Arab villages of Jayus, Ras Atiya, Daba, Ras Tireh, and Habla and cutting them off from their farmlands.

The mayor of Qalqilya told me that thousands of his people have fled abroad in search of work, and that thousands more have become “internal refugees” chased from their land and reduced to penury. “Fifteen aquifer wells in the area of Qalqilya have been taken by the Israelis, who have diverted the waters for their own use,” the mayor said. “This destroys our agriculture and our source of income. Qalqilya is being choked to death.” Western aid officials in the West Bank told me that the Israelis are working twenty-four hours a day to complete the fence, apparently intending it to form a new border of the West Bank before peace negotiations get underway.

Jonathan Cook, an American journalist living in Israel, wrote recently in the International Herald Tribune that “the security wall will cage in more than two million Palestinians.” Sharon, he writes, admitted in a recent interview with the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth that the wall will be at least 625 miles in length, whereas the green line is only 224 miles. The fence is creating a “tiny de facto Palestinian state before the road map forces a bigger one on him.” Palestinian research based on land expropriation orders projects a map showing a wall winding its way “deep into the heart of the Palestinian state, twisting and turning in an elaborate route designed to keep a large number of the settlers on ‘Israel’s side’ of the wall and minimize the amount of territory left to the Palestinians.” After the wall is finished, at a cost of more than $2 billion, the Palestinians, Cook writes, will live behind concrete and electrified fencing, restricted to their main population centers.2

Liberal Israelis denounce the fence. In Haaretz, Gideon Levy wrote eloquently that the Israelis have no idea of the cost to the Palestinians: “farmers whose fields have been expropriated, vintners whose vinyards have been trampled, shepherds whose pastures have been lost….” Everywhere in the northern West Bank, Levy writes, “the noise of iron cutting into rock can be heard…[and] a fleet of trucks and bulldozers, uprooting mountains.”3


Until recently, few outside the Arab world had ever heard of Mahmoud Abbas (“Abu Mazen”), the new Palestinian prime minister. Born in 1935 in the town of Safed (now in Israel), he has for more than thirty years been a leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, but his name has never been associated with violence, and he has long identified with the dovish wing of Fatah, the largest faction of the PLO. His doctoral thesis for the University of Moscow in the early 1980s questioned whether six million Jews died in the Holocaust or whether in fact the number was much lower, and it tried to establish a connection between Zionism and Nazism. Some Israeli intellectuals consider Abu Mazen a “Holocaust revisionist.”4


For two decades Abu Mazen has cultivated Israeli politicians, especially doves. As deputy to Yasser Arafat, in 1993 he signed the Israeli– Palestinian Oslo accords for the PLO on the lawn of the White House. A close friend described him to me as “a diplomat, not a leader, and not a fighter. He hates confrontations and withdraws into himself and sulks when challenged—his chief weakness. As a negotiator he has a gift for compromise. He respects Arafat but his relations with him are complex.”

To the militant Muslims of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Abu Mazen is an enemy. Last November, before a closed meeting of refugee officials in Gaza, he criticized the violence of the al-Aqsa intifada that began in September 2000, and called for abandoning the armed struggle:

What have we achieved?… What happened over these two years has been the total destruction of all we have built…. We now stand below the poverty level in both Gaza and the West Bank. Our people are lost, hungry, and suffering…. Matters have only been made worse…by our mistakes that have allowed Sharon to continue his aggression…. Where are we heading?… We cannot achieve our aims by the use of force…. Were Arab tanks surrounding Tel Aviv when we reached agreement at Oslo?5

In meetings of Palestinian factions that took place in Cairo between last November and February, Hamas, I was told, said it would agree to suspend its suicide bombings inside Israel’s 1967 borders—provided that Israel cease its targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders and that the Palestinian Authority grant Hamas a voice in the government and money for the extensive Hamas social welfare network, which supplies medical care and other services in Gaza and the West Bank. But Arafat, loath to support radical Islamists who might one day overthrow him, refused to accept Hamas’s conditions. A period of comparative calm prevailed earlier this year but Israel continued its targeted killings of Hamas and other leaders, and during April and May the suicide bombings, some apparently timed to undermine Abu Mazen and the possibility of peace negotiations, have resumed with ferocity. So has the Israeli response.

Hamas is popular in Gaza, less so in the West Bank. Abu Mazen, with no popular base of his own, eager to stop the violence, and with no stomach for a civil war, wants to arrange a truce between the competing Palestinian factions and at the same time a truce with Israel.

Arafat is still respected as the man who did more than anyone to create the Palestinian nation, but his government is held in wide contempt. “What have they done for us?” many ordinary Palestinians asked me. The corruption of the government has often been exposed in the Arab and Israeli press, and has been the subject of investigations by the Palestinian parliament; but the results have never been published. What has been clearly shown is that money and appointments have been given to the cronies of top ministers. Officials of Fatah and other factions have received questionable payments and funds have been variously misused. Arafat tolerated this venality, and used it both to reward his favorites and to keep control of them. More recently the new minister of finance, Salaam Fayyad, a former official of the World Bank, imposed restraints on spending, personally authorizing payments to officials. As a result the corruption has diminished.


At ten in the evening of May 11, I met with Arafat in the muqata, his large compound in Ramallah which was almost entirely reduced to rubble by the Israeli army last year. He is still confined to several grim rooms. Arriving at his office, I was surprised to find not only Arafat but many of his ministers—including Abu Mazen and the foreign minister, Nabil Shaath, all showing great deference to Arafat by their hushed voices and body language. Abu Mazen and Shaath had just returned from meeting with Colin Powell in Jericho, because Powell refused to meet Arafat at Ramallah.

The President sat at the head of the long conference table that serves as his desk, heaped up with documents, books, and bottles of water. I sat down with Arafat to my right and Abu Mazen to my left; a bodyguard stood behind me, leaning over often to adjust the President’s medals and to brush his brown, worn tunic. Arafat was pale, but despite reports of Parkinson’s disease his lower lip now trembles only slightly, apparently thanks to the new medicine he’s been taking. I described my visit to Qalqilya and asked whether the Israeli fence could be accepted as the border of a Palestinian state.

Abu Mazen: Impossible.

Arafat: The Israelis are controlling our water and diverting it to Israeli wells. They are taking our best farmlands in the West Bank. They are building a Berlin Wall around Jerusalem. Unbelievable! Who can accept this? Who can accept this? Bethlehem and Hebron are separated from the north. Jerusalem is completely separated from the West Bank by more than six kilometers of expropriated land….

E.S.: For a final peace, what should be done with the fence?

Arafat and Abu Mazen: It must be removed.

After about ten minutes, Abu Mazen left. I asked Arafat whether in any treaty he would insist on the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees to Israel—a proclaimed sacred principle to Palestinians, which Sharon totally rejects. Arafat’s reply was labyrinthine and opaque, alluding to his many conversations with President Clinton and claiming that Clinton and former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak agreed with him at Camp David that “large numbers” could return. However, he hinted that he would be flexible, saying finally that the refugees must be given “the option” to return to Israel or to accept compensation for their lost property.

E.S.: With Abu Mazen now prime minister, have you been marginalized and made irrelevant to the peace process?

Arafat: Who nominated Abu Mazen? I could have nominated Nabil Shaath…. I was elected president of the Palestinian people in 1996…. Marginalized? This is Bush and Sharon! Sharon cannot forget his defeat in front of me [in Lebanon] in 1982—when he lost his titles of Hero of the Israeli Army and minister of defense. Abu Mazen came with Nabil Shaath to report to me at 5 PM after Jericho and Secretary Powell. They called me immediately after Jericho.

Foreign Minister Shaath: No one would have met with Powell or any other envoy without President Arafat’s direct instructions.

Arafat: Abu Mazen said—a meeting with Sharon? I said, all right. I didn’t stop any meetings with Israelis and Americans. I am pushing my colleagues to go there, for a peace of the brave. We accept the road map as it is, not in small pieces….

I left the muqata convinced that Arafat is still much in command of Palestinian policy and that American and Israeli attempts to thrust him aside will not easily succeed. I also heard persistent reports that Arafat is undermining his prime minister, keeping most of the security forces under his own control, and denying Abu Mazen other powers he needs to be effective.


Sharon remains popular with most Israelis. The Israelis, mainly on the left, who belong to the “peace camp” have been badly weakened by the suicide bombings—nearly one hundred in the last thirty-two months. One finds among them a mood of embarrassment and impotence. Hamas and the Islamic Jihad seem intent on destroying the road map; so do the extremist settler parties in Sharon’s government who want all of Palestine. Sharon, for his part, has built several dozen new settlement “outposts” near existing settlements, despite his promises to the Americans not to do so.

In statements to the Israeli press during the last two years, Sharon made it clear that the “Palestinian state,” as he envisions it, must consist of no more than Gaza and about 42 percent of a ghettoized West Bank, with Israel the master of its air space, borders, and water. On May 25 he and his cabinet accepted the road map—surely a welcome development—but still with numerous secret “reservations,” which were leaked on May 27. They sound like a diktat to the Palestinians, saying, for example, that “calm will be the condition to the continuation of the process.”

“The Palestinian Authority will dismantle the existing security organizations and implement security reforms, and full performance will be a condition for progress between phases.”

“The emergence of a new and different leadership in the PA…is a precondition to the second phase of the plan.”

The provisional Palestinian state will be “fully demilitarized with no military forces, but have only limited police and internal security forces and arms.”

In view of such reservations, the “painful concessions” Sharon spoke of recently seem part of a teasing game he is playing with Bush. Shortly after speaking of concessions he backtracked and announced that he would retain major settlements. Palestinian and Israeli analysts agree that under American prodding he may, in exchange for diminished violence, eventually dismantle some settlements, release some Palestinian prisoners, un- freeze some Palestinian funds, relax military control, and then claim that he has made major concessions for peace.

Indeed, as one of Arafat’s advisers told me, Arafat himself expects little more by the spring of 2005, since he is convinced that no real progress toward a successful state (which would include East Jerusalem and its suburbs) can be achieved with Sharon in power. Both Arafat and Abu Mazen are said to believe privately that they will have accomplished as much as they can hope for under Sharon and Bush if Israel restores freedom of movement in the West Bank and Gaza, allows many thousands of Palestinians to resume their jobs in Israel, and stops increasing settlements. Abu Mazen’s own plans call for democratic reform of the Palestinian government, a crackdown on corruption, and an end to Palestinian violence.

Tricky, dissembling, and maddening though he is, Arafat may soldier on for several years, making the crucial decisions; yet he is elderly and frail, and a new Palestinian leader is bound to emerge. Among Palestinian intellectuals, Abu Mazen is seen as a transitional figure, preparing the way for someone else. New leaders such as the charismatic secular physician Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi are contemptuous of Arafat’s government for its “corruption and incompetence,” as Barghouthi puts it. They are calling for new elections, a system of checks and balances between the Palestinian parliament and the top leaders, the strengthening of courts and independent prosecutions leading to the rule of law, an end to violence, and an economic plan to develop national resources. Toward Israel, Barghouthi advocates widespread but peaceful resistance by demonstrations, strikes, and legal claims. He impressed me with his intelligence and flair when I met him in Ramallah—could he or some other secular leader like him be a future president?

Most Palestinians yearn for peace, quiet, and jobs; they regard the road map as another check that is likely to bounce until they see evidence to the contrary. They have despaired of political solutions in the near term and many look to the next quarter-century when Arabs living between the Mediterranean and the River Jordan will outnumber Jews and they will be able (or so they think) to demand equal rights as citizens of a unitary state including both Israel and Palestine. Yet even many liberal Israelis recoil from such a prospect, and also, like Yossi Sarid of the leftist Meretz party, reject Palestinian insistence on “the right of return” to Israel of the Palestinian diaspora.

“The right of return question is one on which all Israelis agree,” Sarid told me in Tel Aviv. “It will never take place, and the Palestinians know this well. It’s possible that we could take in a limited number of refugees to reunite them in Israel with their families, but in the tens of thousands, not hundreds of thousands. This is the most difficult problem between us and the Palestinians.” Indeed it is a problem that goes to the heart of sustaining the predominantly Jewish character of Israel.


The Western diplomats I talked to argue, plausibly, that attempting to promote the road map is better than doing nothing—even as they admit that its success may depend on some future Israeli government. From all past evidence, Sharon most probably will continue to try to humor Bush, seeming to agree with him, voicing reservations, while doing much as he pleases in the territories—continuing the settlements, absorbing East Jerusalem and its suburbs, and building the fence.

Will Bush consent to be deceived? Reports from Washington suggest that the President has made up his mind to overcome the enormous obstacles, to put pressure on Sharon as well as on the Palestinians, and to produce clear progress toward a settlement during the next year, before the 2004 elections. Will he decide that the 1967 borders must be restored with only small adjustments, with East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital? If the suicide bombings continue, will he demand that Abu Mazen and his minister for security, Mohammed Dahlan, wage civil war on Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, compounding the bloodshed? Will he be able to persuade Sharon to tear down the fence and evacuate the settlements around East Jerusalem? Will he withhold part of the huge US financial and military aid to Israel as the ultimate means to influence Sharon’s decisions?

On May 26, Sharon told the Knesset: “You might not like the word ‘occupation,’ but that is what it is. To hold 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation is a terrible thing for Israel, the Palestinians, and the economy.” This unusual language has made observers ask whether Sharon feels he must accommodate pressures from Bush. He counts on the $10 billion in direct aid and economic guarantees that Bush has promised him, and he is no doubt reluctant to endanger it.

It may be that his “reservations” are a maximum negotiating position—but will Bush challenge them? Having destroyed the Iraqi threat to Israel, and with powerful Arab nations having accepted the road map, Bush may be in a position to impose a settlement. By doing so he could achieve one of the great triumphs of diplomacy in the postwar years. Does he calculate that he has more to gain—for the sake of his reelection—by seriously seeking such a peace than by favoring the American evangelicals and the majority in the US Congress who support the Israeli right? If he decides to favor the evangelicals, then the road map will not placate the Arab-Muslim world following the Iraq war; it will produce even more poisoned feeling between the Arabs and the United States.

The summit meeting in Jordan on June 4 between Bush, Sharon, and Abu Mazen seemed more than just grandiose public relations—it was intended to demonstrate the President’s intense interest in making peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and offered hope to both sides that the conflict will end. Abu Mazen strongly ac- knowledged Jewish suffering throughout history and denounced terrorism; Sharon recognized the need for a Palestinian state and announced that he would dismantle small “unauthorized” settlement outposts. Beyond the speeches, however, there was cause for disappointment. Defying Abu Mazen, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad announced that they would continue the armed struggle; Sharon’s concession on the outposts was minimal, ignoring the large established settlements as a major barrier to peace and saying nothing about stopping their continuing expansion. The fence around Qalqilya continues to be built.

If the road map fails, the suicide bombings continue, and Israeli repression grows even bloodier, and if Bush abandons his attempts at peace and reverts to “crisis management,” it seems possible that Arafat’s and Abu Mazen’s secular government will be crippled by anarchy and the rising power of fundamentalist Islam.

“The intifada has changed the nature of the conflict,” the philosopher Avishai Margalit told me in Jerusalem. “It has become a blood feud between Arabs and Jews—settling scores and taking revenge on a daily basis…. We see now a fusion of nationalism and religion in both societies. I foresee a further retreat into religion by the Palestinians—more Islam, not less. The main fear I have is of a full-fledged religious conflict.”

Could it be that the United States has waited too long to address the root of the struggle—the dispossession of the Palestinian people during Israel’s creation in 1948—and that it must now bear the consequences? I am not the only early proponent of a two-state solution6 who is beginning to wonder whether such a solution is still possible.

—Jerusalem, June 5, 2003

This Issue

July 3, 2003