Why this deal might be different

Israeli and Palestinian leaders met for first time in four years Tuesday at a summit in Egypt.

With a firm handshake, Israeli and Palestinian leaders have vowed to halt violence amid international hopes of a new, brighter era after four years of fighting.

But recent history has shown that going beyond summitry to managing tough internal politics and the risk-taking needed for sustained peacemaking is a difficult transition.

From the Camp David summit in July 2000 to Aqaba, Jordan, in 2003, expectations have been raised only to be followed by crushing disappointment and violence. The collapse of the Camp David bid to resolve all outstanding issues led to the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000.

The "road map" unfolded at Aqaba was effectively discarded when a unilateral cease-fire - brokered by then Palestinian Prime Minister Abbas - was broken by Israeli army operations and Palestinian attacks.

This time around, analysts say, some key variables have changed. In Israel's view, the biggest difference is the death of Yasser Arafat, whom it and the US shunned for alleged ties to terrorism. (see The New US Role.)

"Now the boulder has been removed and the road is clear," says Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin. But Palestinians say the problem was - and remains - Sharon, not Arafat.

Factors helping define the current Israeli-Palestinian dynamic, say analysts, include the mutual exhaustion, the planned Gaza withdrawal, and international determination not to allow Abbas's efforts at stabilizing Palestinian politics and ending the armed intifada to come to naught. "This is the first time I feel that both sides have reached a point where ... there must be a new era and better conditions on both sides," says Palestinian analyst Khader Abu Abarra.

At Tuesday's summit at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh hosted by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, with the participation of Jordan's King Abdallah, both leaders stressed the need to seize this opportunity for peace.

As part of the deal, Israel agreed to hand over control of five West Bank towns to the Palestinians within three weeks and release 500 Palestinian prisoners. Another 400 would be released later. Abbas said he expected the cease-fire pledge to pave the way for resumption of talks on so-called "final status" issues such as borders, refugees, and Jerusalem's status, all within the context of the Mideast "road map" to peace.

But each side has a distance to go.

Abbas Tuesday bluntly called on Israel to avoid "unilateral steps" and urged rapid resumption of political negotiation, while Sharon stressed security and urged the Palestinian leader to go beyond a temporary cease-fire and crack down on militant groups.

If indeed the two sides have reached that point at which they can maintain an actual cease-fire, the toll along the path here has been enormous. From the beginning of the intifada in 2000 to the end of 2004, 3,189 Palestinians, including 617 minors, have died in the fighting, according to the Israeli human rights group B'tselem. It reports 940 Israelis have been killed, including 167 minors and 640 civilians.

"The situation is not ripe for the grand deal but it is ripe for taking advantage of the hurting stalemate to reach agreements on the ground to ameliorate the [conditions of] the Palestinian population and to create an on-going negotiating dynamic," says Bruce Maddy-Weitzaman, a Middle East historian at Tel Aviv University.

Israel's planned withdrawal from Gaza settlements this summer - which Palestinians view warily as a bid to ultimately consolidate Israeli control of the West Bank - is seen by Egypt as an additional factor that could now bring the two sides together, says Makram Ahmed, editor of al-Musawar magazine.

"The situation today is better than at the time of Camp David because now we have something concrete, we have a deep desire by Sharon to leave Gaza and he cannot leave Gaza without Palestinian cooperation. He needs the Palestinians," he says.

He adds that America's troubles in Iraq are impelling it to take a greater interest now in Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. "They think some momentum on the Palestinian track will help in Iraq. There is a change in the American language and Sharon cannot neglect it," he says, referring to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's stress in recent pronouncements that Israel must yield territory so that an envisioned Palestinian state can be viable.

The immediate future promises to be enormously challenging, experts say.

Abbas has to deal not only with trying to consolidate power in his own Fatah movement, but with the militant group Hamas whose entry into Palestinian electoral politics does not necessarily portend a move away from violence. "None of the leaders in Sharm el-Sheikh can give a definite answer to the question of whether the intifada is actually over," says Arnon Regular, Palestinian affairs writer for Haaretz.

Sharon for his part, will have his hands full maintaining his coalition in the run-up to next summer's Gaza withdrawal, says Hebrew University political analyst Menachem Hofnung. "Sharon cannot trust his coalition to support all kinds of confidence building measures unless the Palestinians carry out ten times their obligations," he says.

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