WASHINGTON -- Certain words, used over and over, are supposed to clarify the negotiations and changes that are to come in the Middle East. Take, for example, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's recent meeting with President Bush in Crawford, Texas.
"Contiguity" was one of the favorite words. It has been used widely in recent months, even by the Bush administration, to demand that a Palestinian state have contiguous land masses rather than the hopelessly isolated South African-style "bantustans."
But curiously, the Israeli leader was using the word in a new sense: to demand that his illegal West Bank settlements be expanded so that THEY are contiguous. Which means, of course, that a Palestinian state cannot be.
Another concept of concern was the oft-referenced "road map" that the United States, Israel, the Palestinians, the Russians and the Europeans several years ago adopted as the way to peace.
But while George W. is now pushing the road map, which clearly calls for both belligerent parties to take steps in tandem to move toward peace, Prime Minister Sharon interprets this moment as being in a "pre-road map phase" that does not require Israel to meet any of its obligations until the Palestinians meet all of theirs.
Meanwhile, Sharon subtly threatened President Bush with the possibility of internal "civil war" in Israel once the decampment from Gaza theoretically starts July 20; and he publicly announced large increases to settler cities such as Maaleh Adumim, which will effectively cut Palestinian territories into three non-contiguous areas, with no means for Palestinians to move from one to another.
So yes, Virginia, there is a road map. The problem is that there are so many version of it that nothing is going to work there, yet again.
Ironically, when the Iraq war began two years ago, the Bush administration war hawks gave as one of their major reasons for going to war halfway across the globe (besides the elusive search for Saddam's supposed weapons of mass destruction) the idea of "reconfiguring" the Arab world to facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Today, although there are doubtless years of danger ahead, it can be argued that the Iraq war has started that reconfiguration. Yet in the Israeli-Palestinian road map negotiations, the outcome is far from being reached.
First, the planned July 20 removal of Israeli settlers from Gaza is being built up by Prime Minister Sharon as an immense favor to the United States and the rest of the world. Gaza, one of the great hell holes of the world, is only 10 miles wide and 30 miles long. With some 8,500 Israeli settlers, protected by 50,000 Israeli troops until now, Gaza has been a moral and geopolitical absurdity, the only intention being to taunt and insult the 1.3 million hopeless and impoverished Palestinians who live there.
Now, precluding widespread violence as they either leave or are forcefully removed, settler families will be paid from $130,000 to $400,000 to resettle elsewhere in Israel. This is expected to be paid for, not surprisingly, by the United States; in fact, the Sharon government is already asking the Bush administration for two separate aid packages, according to the Jewish newspaper Forward, totaling up to $1.6 billion to defray costs of the planned pullout. That is in addition to the $2.6 billion annual American assistance to Israel.
This does not mean, however, that the Crawford meeting was all cordiality and comradeship. This time, it was not. The Israeli leader somewhat irked the American president by telling him bluntly that he intended to forge ahead with West Bank settlement construction, whatever the American reaction, and that he considers Iran, with its nuclear intentions, the next target for both Israel and America. U.S. spokesmen disagreed that Iran was an immediate threat, but there was, as always, no indicator that Bush would use his power to try to force Sharon to follow his original promises on the road map.
In fact, it is a shock, while optimists on the Middle East still think peace is possible, to look at the reliable Foundation for Middle East Peace's comprehensive map of developments on the West Bank.
Between the wall the Israelis are building and the planned extensions of major settlement-bloc cities, the northern West Bank, with Nablus as its central city, is completely cut off from the central Palestinian areas of Ramallah and Jericho. And that central part has no land connection either with the southern section that includes Bethlehem and Hebron.
Gaza is simply cut off from everybody.
For their part, interested foreign parties to the road map are supposed to be monitoring the advances that Israel and Palestine are taking -- but they are not. The U.S. is supposed to be a neutral negotiator -- but aside from some typically rueful and useless complaints about the Sharon actions on the settlements, it is still doing nothing to assure that the necessary three steps of the road map are being fulfilled.
Universal Press Syndicate