Is peace between Palestinians and Israelis any closer?

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First, some bad news. Israelis and Palestinians are no closer to a comprehensive peace settlement today than they were two-and-a-half years ago when President Bush introduced the so-called “Road Map to Peace.”

Do you even remember the Road Map? Don’t feel too badly if you don’t. Pretty much everyone seems to have forgotten it. Sad to say, that includes the Israelis and the Palestinians, as well as the president who proposed it to them.

The Road Map was unveiled in the spring of 2003. It was the Bush administration’s attempt to do what Presidents Clinton and Carter had done before: Use the United States’ diplomatic leverage to help bring about peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Clinton and Carter, you might recall, tried to broker peace by sitting the Palestinians and Israelis down at the same table to talk about things. The Road Map is different. In keeping with the Bush administration’s aversion to actual diplomacy, the Road Map was written by the Bush administration and simply handed to the Israelis and Palestinians, who were told to implement it.

The Road Map peace plan has three “phases.” The major provisions of Phase I include Israel halting the construction of new settlements in the occupied West Bank as well as the dismantling of some of the most recently built settlements. The primary requirements of the Palestinians in Phase I were to refrain from violence against Israelis while attempting to disarm militant groups like Hamas.

Phase II calls for the creation of a provisional Palestinian state and for Arab nations to restore diplomatic relations with Israel to year 2000-levels. Arab-Israeli relations took a nosedive in 2000 after the Clinton-led Camp David peace talks collapsed and Palestinians began the second intifada. (My people call it an uprising.)

Phase III calls for a great, big, be all, end all peace conference that will finalize the borders of a new Palestinian state, including how much, if any, Jerusalem’s Palestinians will get and how many Palestinian refugees will be allowed to return to Israel proper.

According to the timetable of the Road Map, right now we should be nearing the end of Phase III. Unfortunately, Israelis and Palestinians are still stuck in Phase I. Israel hasn’t stopped building settlements and Palestinians haven’t disarmed groups like Hamas or Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. Instead of a document of peace, the Road Map has been used by both parties as a reason not to act. Both parties cite the other side’s failure to implement Phase I provisions as an excuse to do the same.

The soonest we’re likely to see Israelis and Palestinians sitting down to negotiate is next year.

OK. Are you ready for some good news? Day-to-day, there’s less violence between Palestinians and Israelis than there was one, two or three years ago. There are several reasons for that. First of all, thanks to better tactics and a new wall that separates Palestinian populations on the West Bank from Israeli ones, Israel has gotten a lot better at stopping Palestinian attacks. Secondly, the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has gotten Palestinian militants to largely suspend their attacks against Israel. At the moment, in fact, he’s attempting to get Hamas to step away from militia-ness and take a step toward political party-ness by having Hamas participate in January 2006’s Palestinian elections. Abbas needs to unify Palestinians under a single governmental authority before the real peace negotiations with Israel can resume.

Do you want more good news? Israel withdrew its settlements from the Gaza Strip, a 138-square-mile patch of land on the Mediterranean between Israel and Egypt that’s home to nearly 1.4 million Palestinians. Israel had maintained settlements there since the Israeli military took the land from Egypt during 1967’s Six-Day War.

Israel didn’t withdraw from Gaza out of the goodness of its heart. It was a practical move. As the years drag on, more Israelis are getting sick and tired of spending as much money and blood as they do on maintaining the safety of Israeli settlements planted in the middle of dense Palestinian populations. Though “out” of Gaza, Israel still controls Gaza’s borders, coastline and airspace. Why and how they exited Gaza is probably worth a column on its own.

More good news? I just saved a bunch of money on my car insurance.