In summit's wake, little warmth
Israelis and Palestinians reached a cease-fire pact early Tuesday. Getting through the first 48 hours is critical.
SHARM-EL-SHEIKH, EGYPT — Will any of the words mean anything?
There was widespread concern in the Middle East Tuesday that the vague and fragile promises that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak made to President Clinton here may not be enough to forestall continued conflict.
Both men pledged to the US leader, after he had brokered 21 hours of intense negotiations, that they would "take immediate concrete measures to end the current confrontation."
But it wasn't clear whether or when the two leaders would take those "concrete measures." And after Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat returned home, each indicated - illustrating how difficult this process has become - that it was the other's responsibility to make the first move.
"After 48 hours if we see there is calm in the field, we will pull back our heavy equipment to the point where [it was] before the outbreak of the crisis, and we will lift the losure," of the Palestinian territories, Barak said, an ultimatum remarkably similar to his statements before the summit.
On the ground, in the West Bank and Gaza, the results of the two-day summit here looked meager. "What happened there [in Sharm-el-Sheikh] is very dangerous, because it will not be successful on the street," warned Kadoura Fares, a leader of Mr. Arafat's Fatah movement and a member of the Palestinian legislature. "Our opinion in Fatah is to continue this intifadah [uprising], a peaceful intifadah."
Since the current wave of violence broke out three weeks ago, claiming more than 100 lives, mostly Palestinian, so far, other monitored cease-fires have broken down within hours. And this week's summit produced not a cease-fire, but a "statement of understandings" that Mr. Clinton read out as the meeting closed.
Clinton himself underscored the fragility of his achievement. All the leaders at the summit had agreed, he said, to "begin by promoting reconciliation and avoiding conflict by forgoing questions" from reporters that might have pointed up differences between the parties.
"The main thing to watch in the coming days is how the mechanisms for security will be put in place," says Uri Savir, Israel's former chief negotiator with the Palestinians. "One aspect is how will Arafat contain his own public opinion, which may be quite hostile to these arrangements. And there has to be a linkage between American security efforts and American effort to renew [peace] negotiations," Mr. Savir says.
But Barak and Arafat haven't agreed to return to peace negotiations. Clinton said only that "the US will consult with the parties within the next two weeks about how to move forward."
Instead, the meeting, hosted by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, arranged by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and joined by Jordanian King Abdullah and European Union security chief Javier Solana, focused exclusively on the details of a truce.
The Palestinian and Israeli leaders promised to "issue public statements unequivocally calling for an end of violence," Clinton announced, and to "eliminate points of friction, ensure an end to violence and incitement, maintain calm, and prevent a recurrence of recent events."
"Both sides will act immediately to return the situation to that which existed prior to the current crisis," he added, which would require Israelis to pull back their troops from around Palestinian towns, allow Palestinians to enter Israel, and open Gaza airport. Palestinians would have to restore law and order.
Making no mention of Palestinian aspirations to statehood, nor offering any clear path back to the negotiating table, the agreement is unlikely to win support among Palestinians, say observers in the West Bank.
"As long as it does not revive the peace process and does not give an answer to why this [violence] happened, it does not amount to much more than a band-aid, and one that Arafat will have a hard time selling," says Khalil Shikaki, a political analyst who heads the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, an independent West Bank-based think tank.
If the stone-throwing and shooting does not stop, Israeli officials at the Sharm-el-Sheikh summit warned, Israeli troops will not withdraw. That would mean yesterday's accord would have done nothing to arrest the spiral of violence.
Even as the summit was drawing to a close, a Palestinian man picking olives near the West Bank town of Nablus was reportedly shot dead by Jewish settlers from a nearby settlement. Two settlers were in police custody in connection with the attack, Israeli officials said.
Such violence, Clinton said, threatened "everything we have worked to achieve between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and throughout the region, over the past seven years" of peace talks.
"We should have no illusions about the difficulties ahead," the US president warned. "We will have to work hard to consolidate what we have agreed ... I am counting upon each of us to do everything we possibly can in the critical period ahead."
If the Palestinians continue their intifadah, however, the pan-Arab summit in Cairo this weekend is likely to feel obliged to step up anti-Israeli rhetoric, and call a halt to the normalization of relations with the Jewish state, political analysts warned.
This would further complicate US efforts to restart peace negotiations about which Barak has recently expressed deep reservations, branding Arafat an untrustworthy partner.
Arafat's task of cooling Palestinian passions will not be made easier because he left Sharm el-Sheikh without a key goal he pursued for the past two weeks, an international commission of inquiry into the origins of the violence that flared after a right-wing Israeli politician made a flamboyant visit to an Islamic holy site in Jerusalem also revered by Jews.
Instead, US officials will work with Israelis and Palestinians on an inquiry, as Barak wanted, although "in consultation with the secretary general of the UN."
Such an inquiry, however, could turn out to be irrelevant unless Arafat and Barak can make their pledges to the US president stick. If they fail, "what is evolving on the ground is a real guerrilla war with the Israelis," warned Palestinian Cabinet member Ziad Abu Zayad yesterday. "All our youth will be on the streets, and this would lead us to a very bloody confrontation."
Cameron W. Barr contributed to this report from Jerusalem.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society