At summit, Israel solidifies gains

Pressured by US, Palestinians promised to end the intifada at Wednesday's meeting.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In this phase of its struggle against the Palestinians, Israel can just about declare victory.

At a summit meeting held Wednesday on the shores of the Red Sea, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas stood alongside the leaders of Israel, Jordan, and the US and declared that his government "will exert every effort and we will use every means available to us to end the armed intifada" (uprising) against Israel. He added: "We must use peaceful means in our endeavor to end the occupation," which began when Israeli forces seized the Palestinian territories in 1967.

These remarks may signal the end of the war that Israelis and Palestinians have fought against each other for nearly three years.

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If Mr. Abbas can stop violence against Israel - and he may need to battle Palestinian militants to do so - the Palestinians will end up laying down the arms they have wielded against their occupiers without any significant gains.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also promised Wednesday to promote peace by dismantling settlement "outposts" and improving living conditions for the Palestinians his forces have besieged.

But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has never been a battle of equals, and Israel's position is increasingly dominant.

The Israelis have succeeded in sidelining Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, in promoting a view of the conflict as a struggle between Palestinian "terrorists" and Israelis defending their "security," and in demonstrating that if Israel holds firm, the Palestinians will blink.

Indeed, Abbas is preparing to negotiate with an Israeli leader who forsees a Palestinian state that is approximately half the size of the territory that former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak discussed ceding to the Palestinians in talks just three years ago.

President Bush - at whose behest Wednesday's summit was held - vowed to ride herd as the two parties follow a US-backed peace plan known as the road map. "The Holy Land must be shared between the state of Palestine and the state of Israel," Mr. Bush said.

'[The Palestinians] have failed'

In his peacemaking foray, Bush is venturing where many others have failed. But he also stands to improve his own standing and America's image among the Arabs, many of whom are angry at the US for its unstinting support for Israel and its conduct of the war in Iraq.

Even before the leaders' speeches, Israeli officials were striking a tone somewhere between vindication and triumph.

The Palestinians have realized "that after 32 months of a futile attempt to subdue Israel through terrorism, the only way to achieve their national goals is through negotiation," says Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin.

"Thirty-two months. They failed," Mr. Gissin stressed. "The leader who led them," he added, referring to Mr. Arafat, "is not here today. There's a reason for that."

But he and other Israeli officials repeatedly insisted that the Palestinians would have to follow official statements about halting violence with actions, and promised the world if they do.

"If they take real steps against terrorism, then everything can be worked out," said Gissin.

"In a sad way, it is a capitulation," added Diana Buttu, a legal adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organization, "and it is also a realization on the part of the Palestinians that they must play the game according to the US's new rules."

Those rules came into force after Sept. 11, 2001, when attacks against the US complicated Palestinian efforts to use force to fight an often-violent Israeli occupation. Since then, every Palestinian terrorist attack seemed to cement the link between the US and Israeli governments as fellow warriors in a battle against fanatics.

The language that Palestinians use describe the conflict - "resistance against occupation" - seemed less and less credible.

Lost in the rhetoric was the reality that the Israelis have killed three Palestinians for every Israeli that has been killed since strife broke out in September 2000.

Indeed, the road map that both sides have accepted refers more than a dozen times to the need to end Palestinian violence and terrorism. The end of occupation is mentioned twice. Sharon adviser Dore Gold states simply: "Something happened on Sept. 11."

A key role for the US

Now the Palestinians can do little more than trust the US, which has long made clear that its first priority in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the defense of Israel's security.

"We are hoping that the role of the US will be one of countering the imbalance of power between a very strong Israel and a very weak Palestinian Authority," says Michael Tarazi, also a legal adviser to the PLO.

Gissin, Sharon's spokesman, cited Bush's recent visit to Auschwitz as a reason for Israelis not to worry about American priorities. The visit "left no doubt in anyone's mind that the president and the US are committed to the security of Israel."

Even so, Sharon's acceptance of the road map and his apparent willingness to roll back the Jewish settlement of Palestinian lands strike Mr. Tarazi as reasons for hope.

"We see that Israel is taking actions it would rather not take, and that is due to American pressure," he says.

Israeli reservations

But Sharon prefaced his acceptance of the new peace plan by articulating a list of reservations that diplomats say would gut the document.

And observers on both sides of the conflict say they find it difficult to believe that Sharon can or will dismantle the Israeli settlements, that he has worked for decades to build, in order to make room for a Palestinian state.

And it remains entirely unclear whether Mr. Abbas can convince Palestinian militants to join him in the path of nonviolence. If they refuse, he will have to use force, which raises the prospect of a Palestinian civil war.

David Hacham, who has advised Israeli defense ministers on Arab affairs for years, says the meetings in Aqaba remind him of the the heady days a decade ago when Israeli and Palestinian leaders began their talks in atmosphere of anticipation and uncertainty. "Today it's different," he says. "We are more mature, we have experience ... we are aware of the obstacles facing us."

Another difference is that "today there is an international consensus against terrorism," he adds. Conceding that Israelis do feel a sense of victory, he adds: "It's a victory on blood."

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