14 April 2008 marks the fourth anniversary of the date when the signposts pointing the direction towards realizing President Bush’s vision for a Palestinian State were emblazoned on the diplomatic horizon.
Few however have grasped the significance of - or conveniently wish to forget - what occurred that day when President Bush and Israel’s then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met in Washington.
A historic exchange of letters took place between them with Israel announcing it would unilaterally initiate a process of gradual disengagement starting with the intention “to relocate military installations and all Israeli villages and towns in the Gaza Strip” as well as “other military installations and a small number of villages in Samaria”.
In addition Israel planned to accelerate the construction of the Security Fence which it stated would be a security rather than a political barrier, temporary rather than permanent and therefore would not prejudice any final status issues including final borders.
This Disengagement Plan was to be undertaken with the hope of reducing friction between Israelis and Palestinians, to improve the economy of the Palestinian Authority and to enhance the welfare of its people. It was designed to improve security for Israel and stabilize its political and economic situation. It was clearly expressed to be an initiative not being undertaken under President Bush’s Road Map but was an independent Israeli plan whilst not being inconsistent with the Road Map.
President Bush in his letter to Mr Sharon acknowledged the Disengagement Plan to be
“a bold and historic initiative that can make an important contribution to peace” and a “courageous decision “.
The President’s letter stated the United States appreciated the risks such an undertaking represented and gave Mr Sharon the following written assurances:
1. The United States would do its utmost to prevent any attempt by anyone to impose any plan other than the Road Map.
2. The United States reiterated its steadfast commitment to Israel’s security, including defensible borders and to preserve and strengthen Israel’s capability to deter and defend itself - by itself - against any threat or possible combination of threats .
3. Israel would retain its right to defend itself against terrorism, including to take actions against terrorist organisations.
4. The United States was committed to Israel’s well being as a Jewish State,
5. The United States understood that after Israel withdrew from Gaza and/or parts of the West Bank, existing arrangements regarding control of airspace, territorial waters and land passages would continue pending agreement on other arrangements.
6. An agreed, just, fair and realistic framework for the solution of the Palestinian refugee issue would need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian State, and the settling of the Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel.
7. In the light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it would be unrealistic to expect that the outcome of the final status negotiations would be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.
The Disengagement Plan proved an absolute disaster with none of its defined goals or objectives being attained. Indeed the seizure by Hamas of absolute power in the Gaza Strip in June 2007 and the complete failure of the Palestinian Authority to now have any influence over political decisions being made there represents a diplomatic denouement of massive proportions.
The Road Map remains but a twinkle in the eye of President Bush with not one single step put into operation despite six years of intense diplomacy. Any chances of it being fully implemented by the end of this year when the President leaves office is a hopeless exercise in wishful thinking.
The only people who keep talking up this possibility are President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Special Envoy Tony Blair.
The Presidential aspirants - John McCain, Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton - remain remarkably tight-lipped as to the policies they intend to pursue if President Bush’s “June 24, 2002 vision” remains unrealised when one of them is elected the next President of the United States.
Each candidate needs to answer the following questions before polling day:
1. Will you remain committed to President Bush’s vision and to its implementation as described in the Road Map?
2. Will you confirm that you intend to honour the assurances given by President Bush in his letter to Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on 14 April 2004?
There is no room for equivocation by the candidates. A simple “yes” or “no” to each question is required.
Israel cannot be expected to accept - nor should it have to confront - any attempt by the next President to walk away from - or seek to alter - the assurances made by President Bush.
If the next President fails to honour the 14 April 2004 assurances, he (or she) will be held entirely responsible for seeing the window of opportunity for creating an independent State of Palestine for the first time ever in history slammed unceremoniously in his (or her) face.
“Palestine” after Bush will then no longer be a vision but only a mere mirage that will finally disappear when the international community opens its eyes, erases the thought completely from its mind and finally focuses on the division of the West Bank and Gaza between Israel, Jordan and Egypt.