The US-sponsored "road map" to peace between Israel and the Palestinians is not a very challenging document. The text, which is posted at the State Department website, is only 4-1/2 pages long, and most of it is written in reasonably clear English. Anyone willing to invest 15 minutes in reading it can glean a pretty good idea of its terms.
And yet a surprising number of people one might expect to be familiar with the road map seem not to know what it says. Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, for example.
In an interview last week with Lally Weymouth of Newsweek and The Washington Post, Abbas said he had discussed the road map four times with Ariel Sharon and was "waiting to see" if the Israeli prime minister would deliver on his commitments.
"Does that mean freezing settlements?" Weymouth asked.
"Not this only," Abbas answered, "but all the items stipulated in the road map -- freeing the prisoners. . ."
"But the issue of prisoners is not in the road map," Weymouth objected.
"It is in the road map," Abbas insisted.
In fact, it isn't in the road map. There is nothing at all in the blueprint that requires or even encourages Israel to release Palestinians arrested for terrorist activities -- not now, not in the future. It is hardly plausible that Abbas didn't know that. More likely, he knew it perfectly well -- but figured most Washington Post and Newsweek readers wouldn't.
After all, in the weeks leading up to President Bush's back-to-back summits with Abbas and Sharon, the media harped incessantly on the release of Palestinian prisoners as a critical step in the latest Middle East peace process. Some reporters noted in passing that the road map doesn't say anything about Palestinian prisoners, but others falsely implied -- or stated outright -- that freeing criminals was an obligation the agreement map imposes on Israel.
The week Abbas arrived in Washington, for example, the Post was reporting that "the road map has stalled over several key issues," including "Palestinian demands for …the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails." A few days earlier, the Los Angeles Times informed its readers that Sharon and Abbas were to discuss "ongoing steps under the peace plan known as the 'road map,' including the release of some Palestinian prisoners."
Last week, succumbing to the international pressure, Israel agreed to free 540 prisoners, including 210 members of the terrorist organizations Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The Israeli government promised not to release any prisoners "with blood on their hands," but time and again that is exactly what it has done.
In June, for example, as a goodwill gesture to Abbas, Israel freed more than 100 imprisoned Palestinians. One of them was Ahmed Jbarra, who murdered 14 people and wounded 60 in a horrific bombing in 1975. Upon his release, the unrepentant Jbarra was hailed by Palestinians as a hero and promptly named an "adviser" to Yasser Arafat. Soon after, The Jerusalem Post reported, he was publicly urging Palestinians to kidnap Israelis so they could be exchanged for even more Arab prisoners.
But none of that got much attention outside Israel, where the focus has moved on to what else Israel should be doing to keep the road map alive. Much has been made of the security wall Israel is building along the West Bank border. Palestinian demands that Israel demolish the wall have gotten a great deal of attention, as has the Bush administration's public criticism. And yet the wall too is something about which the road map says absolutely nothing.
By contrast, the document says a great deal about what the Palestinian Authority is supposed to do. And the PA's foremost obligation, more critical to the road map's success than anything else, is to crush the terrorists who have shed so much innocent blood.
The anti-Israel incitement continues. Terrorism has not stopped. As for the dismantling of terrorist groups, Abbas says bluntly that it will never happen.
The language is explicit: The PA must "declare an unequivocal end to violence and terrorism." It must "arrest, disrupt, and restrain individuals and groups conducting and planning violent attacks on Israelis anywhere." It must end "all official . . . incitement against Israel." Above all, it must carry out the "dismantlement of terrorist capability and infrastructure." These are not optional goodwill gestures or "confidence-building" suggestions. They are mandatory commitments the Palestinians must fulfill if the road map is to go forward.
So far they have fulfilled none of them. The anti-Israel incitement continues. Terrorism has not stopped. As for the dismantling of terrorist groups, Abbas says bluntly that it will never happen.
"Cracking down on Hamas, [Islamic] Jihad, and the Palestinian organizations," he declared on July 23, "is not an option at all."
It is the Oslo farce all over again: Israel weakens itself through real concessions on the ground, while the Palestinians pocket the concessions and then break their promise of peace.
However well meant, this is a road map to nowhere. It will not lead to genuine peace and security, not so long as the Palestinians are ruled by the likes of Arafat and Abbas. Terrorism made them what they are; it is the taproot of their power and influence. From such men, peace will never come.
The indispensable first step to Mideast peace remains what it always has been: a new and different Palestinian leadership, one not compromised by terror. Until that leadership appears, the violence and bloodshed will go on.