s I sit down to write this article just before
Easter, Abu Abbas, leader of a group called the Palestine
Front, has just been detained by US forces in Iraq. The PLF
is little known these days. Back in the 1980s, it had greater
prominence as one of the more hardline and ruthless Palestinian
guerrilla organisations. Its hijacking of the Italian cruise-ship,
Achille Lauro in 1985 led to the murder of the disabled American
passenger, Leon Klinghoffer.
It was an appalling act: one of the many which have been
committed by both sides in the Israel/Palestine conflict
over the years. But one of the objectives of the Oslo Accords
of the 1990s was to promote peace by drawing a line under
what had gone before. During that time, Abu Abbas was even
allowed by Israel to travel to Gaza on several occasions.
Now, however, the US diplomatic foghorn, tells us that
Abu Abbas’ detention is proof-positive that Saddam’s
Iraq had been a haven for terrorists; that it is another
milestone in the "global war against terror." The
US State Department has dismissed what was agreed at Oslo
as purely a matter between the Palestinians and Israel. The
implication is that it had nothing to do with the USA. So
what that the agreement had been endorsed on the White House
But as Abu Abbas was detained, there was still no sign
of the long awaited "Roadmap" for peace in the Middle
East which, in a blaze of publicity on the eve of military
action against Iraq, President Bush had promised to publish.
I don’t know if it will still be so elusive by the
time Chartist comes out, but the Roadmap can be viewed, unofficially
It is not a remarkable document, but it does at least appear
to offer a framework of sorts to bring violence to an end
and implement UN resolutions. When over 2000 Palestinians
and over 700 Israelis have died since September 2000 alone,
that must be worth a try.
But is the Roadmap serious or was its promise a cynical
ploy to placate Arab opinion during the war in Iraq? The
is that both are probably true. Although George Bush is assuming
its ownership, the Roadmap was actually drawn up jointly
by what has become known as the Quartet - the USA, the EU,
Russia and the UN. Clearly, without the USA’s active
engagement, the Roadmap process will be a road to nowhere.
But the USA is not a completely free agent either. So what
are the contradictory forces that are now coming into play?
From the start, the Roadmap has been viewed with suspicion
by the Sharon government which was reported to have tried
to table around 100 changes to it. In the run up to an election
the Bush administration is unlikely to want to do anything
that upsets Jewish opinion in the States. But today it is
wrong to assume that American Jewish opinion is monolithic.
The right wing axis of fundamentalist Christians and extreme
Zionists may have more sway around the Pentagon than ever,
but their world-view worries substantial chunks of liberal
Jewish opinion in the States as much as anyone else. Some
parts of mainstream Jewish opinion will not waver in giving
priority to Israel’s security, but they do not necessarily
see that as synonymous with uncritical US backing for Likud
intransigence. Encouraging a dialogue with those strands
in Jewish opinion in the States and elsewhere is more important
But the hawks in the US administration and the Sharon Government
still have ways of preventing the Roadmap being put into
practice. Key to these will be submerging the complexity
of what is happening in Palestine into a generalised ‘war
on terror’. Straight after 9/11, Sharon labelled Yasser
Arafat as Israel’s ‘Bin Laden’. Although
probably motivated more by a desire to retrospectively ‘prove’ some
of the US’s wilder pre-war claims about Iraq than to
support Israel, the Abu Abbas affair will probably play a
similar role. Even more significant are the bellicose US
warnings to Syria that have been hitting the headlines.
They may not herald any US plan to invade Syria. But they
may well foreshadow attacks by Israel on Hizbollah positions
in South Lebanon or maybe even military strikes against Syrian
targets alleged to be ‘supporting terrorism’.
It is true that Hizbollah is an extreme Islamist organisation
which has engaged in attacks on Israel.
However, the hallmark of Hizbollah’s military approach
so far has been its focus on (successfully) securing the
withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon and in clashes
around disputed areas along the Israeli/Syrian/Lebanese borders.
Their strategy has not been that of the suicide bomb in the
market or in the disco, as practised by groups such as Hamas
or Islamic Jihad. In the coming weeks, however, it may be
convenient for Israel and the US to blur such distinctions.
And if action against Hizbollah leads to retaliation, by
them or others, the opportunities for even further blurring
of such distinctions will grow.
Against this emerging background, the Roadmap may well
be consigned to the same back-burner as countless UN resolutions
dealing with the Middle East conflict. For Sharon, the appeal
of that may be clear. For Bush, the temptation to keep the
US electorate gripped by the ongoing ‘war on terror’ may
also be a tempting diversion from a domestic agenda that
is rather more risky for him.
But whilst all this is going on, innocent people continue
to die. The numbers of suicide attacks have dropped dramatically
recently but more Israelis will no doubt perish in those
that continue, just as more Palestinians will die from Israeli
missiles and tank shells.
In the last few months, the casualty lists have also included
foreigners. American Rachel Corrie died under the tracks
of an Israeli bulldozer as she protested against the demolition
of Palestinian homes in Gaza. British citizen Tom Hurndall
was shot by Israeli forces as he tried to go to the assistance
of a Palestinian family under fire. To the North East from
Gaza, Israel continues to construct its "security wall" to
separate the West Bank from Israel. Significantly, the wall
is being built in the West Bank, not between it and Israel.
It will not bring an end to violence, but it does mean more
confiscation of land from Palestinian farmers along the route.
There is no doubt that these examples give force to the
arguments of those who see the whole Roadmap process as a
To some in the US administration it probably is just that.
So scepticism may be realistic.
The trouble is that it does not achieve change. That is
why those of us who work for peace with justice in the Middle
East must intervene in the debate about the Roadmap and call
for its implementation.
It is time to call on the members of the Quartet, individually
and collectively, to put their money where their mouths are.
Solidarity work with those under occupation is especially
important at this time. And so is encouraging those in the
Jewish community – in Israel and abroad - who raise
their heads above the parapet to say that Sharon’s
way is no more the road to security for Israel than it is
to end the suffering of the Palestinians.
Richard Burden is Labour MP for Birmingham Northfield and
chair of the Labour Israel-Palestine Committee.