Palestinian president Yasser Arafat has said that the "road map", a plan for peaceful settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, became non-viable on April 14, after US President George W. Bush approved an Israeli plan for unilateral withdrawal from the Palestinian territories.
This is only one of the results of President Bush's unsuccessful diplomatic showmanship. The documents adopted at the American-Israeli summit in the US leave much room for interpretation and spell many problems for the Middle East, as a result.
It may be recalled that on Wednesday, April 14, Bush, during talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, for the first time admitted that Israel may keep the territories it occupied since 1967. UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 mandate the Israelis to quit them. And until now all bilateral and multilateral agreements on peaceful settlement in the region have taken these decisions into account.
Bush, however, citing resolutions 242 and 338, notes that in the light of present-day circumstances, with Israel having built large populated localities there, it is unrealistic to expect the negotiations on final status to lead back to 1949 armistice frontiers.
Bush's remarks on Palestinian refugees evoked another storm in the Middle East. It is clear that the issue of Palestinian refugees in the obtaining circumstances should be resolved in the context of a Palestinian state and arrival of Palestinians there, rather than in Israel, the US president said.
All these remarks came as a complete surprise to American partners in the "Middle East quartet" - Russia, the EU, and the UN. Moreover, not the sense, but the form and the fact that Washington had not agreed these remarks with anybody.
To begin with, Washington has decided once more to do without the UN and the Security Council, whose decisions underlie, incidentally, not only the unfinished edifice of Middle East settlement, but - it may be recalled - the existence of Israel and Palestine.
Of course, it is common knowledge that President Bush believes in strong-arm and unilateral methods when dealing with conflicts. And the international community will have long to unravel the consequences of Washington's policy in Iraq. But, seemingly, on Middle East settlement, one can avoid Iraqi mistakes. The quartet mechanism was developed precisely to find joint and objective solutions to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
It has been believed for many years that Washington holds a manifestly pro-Israeli stance, and Moscow a pro-Palestinian one. Both co-sponsors sought to get rid of such labels. Inside the quartet they balanced each other, with the result that, whatever views of the mediators were, their moves have been coordinated lately when it concerned the principles of conflict settlement. And now Washington has upset this balance.
On top of everything else, it made public what has for many years remained behind the scenes. Negotiations imply compromises, and they need new solutions - which should be discussed behind closed doors. The most interesting thing is that Bush made a patent slip by saying something that did not reflect real US positions at these confidential discussions. For example, Israel's total return to the 1949 borders is no longer mooted, and has not been so for a long time. Parties to conflict and middlemen were actually seeking possibilities for a territorial compromise, as well as for a universal solution to the recognition of the Palestinian refugees' right to return. And, officially and non-officially, there were options suiting both parties to the conflict.
But with Bush having made his remarks, a compromise for the Palestinians appears practically impossible, because it would look like a concession to the Israelis and Americans. And, as in the situation with Iraq, Bush has given a blank check to extremists and radicals.
And that is not all. Bush refers not only to Israeli borders with the Palestinians, but also to its borders with Syria and Lebanon. And Bush's remarks may kill their hopes too - that the issue will be resolved with due account taken of their interests and positions.
On balance, the US president has said this time too many things that need a lot of time to sort out. Each party to settlement understands his words in their own way, but their understanding does not match the others' assessments. It's chaos total and complete. The Israeli Left wingers - supporters of peaceful settlement - have received Bush's words as a chance that the peace process will be carried on and end in the establishment of two states.
The only thing remaining is to start bringing some order into an emerging bedlam. Moscow, for example, in its official statements prefers to concentrate on good things, believing that Washington's references to UN Security Council resolutions, to the road map, statements on the parties' adherence to the idea of coexistence of Israel and a Palestinian state, and approval of Israel's intention to leave the Gaza Strip and eliminate some of the settlements in the West Bank can be seen in the positive light. As for the rest, which "can be seen in the negative light", it prefers to say nothing about it for the time being.
The main problem now is to persuade the Palestinians that Bush's statement is not so catastrophic as they think it is. The first attempt has been made in Moscow at a meeting with Palestinian National Authority's Foreign Minister Nabil Shaat. A concept for talks by Shaat in Washington, where he goes on Monday, will also be formulated in the Russian capital, sources say.
It remains to be hoped that the Palestinians will heed the voice of reason and will not yield to provocations, although it is obvious that it will take quartet members a long time to calm down the Middle East, agitated by Bush.
The paramount task is to adopt a common interpretation of Bush's statement to avoid reading it in many different ways. This is why Moscow is insisting on an urgent convocation of a quartet meeting at the ministerial level.
American experts compensate the lack of facts with forecasts, assumptions and recommendations. This suggests that they are nothing but part of the big propaganda machine of the West