Looking past the Aqaba summit


JERUSALEM, June 4 (JTA) � A double dose of optimism and skepticism led up to this week�s summit at the Red Sea resort of Aqaba, but what really matters is what comes next. Hardened by past failures, Israelis and Palestinians alike recognize that there is still a long way to go, and a lot that could still go wrong after President Bush�s Wednesday meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas.

There are, for example, still dozens of warnings of planned terrorist attacks, and a new round of suicide bombings could quickly derail a reactivated peace process.

And even if the parties are able to make the first moves Bush is asking of them, they will encounter major problems down the road: Will they be able to agree on the final size of the Palestinian state, on the extent of its sovereignty, on Jerusalem and the refugee question? And what about the rejectionists on both sides? Will the Palestinians have the power to collect illegal weapons held by Hamas and Islamic Jihad? Will Israel be able to dismantle settlements?

In other words, can Abbas face down the fundamentalists and can Sharon deal with the settlers?

One far-right Israeli Cabinet minister, Avigdor Lieberman of National Union, warns that �any attempt to dismantle settlements will lead to civil war.�

Despite all the questions, there was a fresh breath of optimism in the air this week.

Israeli generals are talking about the end of the nearly three-year-long Palestinian uprising. Palestinians are delighted by Sharon�s unprecedented use of the term �occupation� and are looking forward to the occupation�s end. And most importantly, both sides have been sobered by what they see as the American administration�s newfound determination to put an end to the long conflict between them.

Indicative of the new mood, the Israeli stock market, sluggish during the intifada years, has been skyrocketing.

The Aqaba summit, designed to jump-start a new peace process, was first and foremost a statement about the degree of American commitment.

Bush, who had carefully kept his distance from the treacherous Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is now making clear that he intends to play an active role and to exert heavy pressure wherever necessary.

On Monday, Bush vowed to �put in as much time as necessary� to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace. Bush made his comments in France before leaving for the Middle East, where he attended a summit in Egypt with Arab leaders on Tuesday and was scheduled to meet with Sharon and Abbas in Jordan on Wednesday.

At the meeting Tuesday with leaders from Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the Palestinian Authority at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik, Bush said Israel �must deal with the settlements.� Israel must �make sure there is continuous territory that the Palestinians can call home.�

These comments appeared to back up statements he made in late May, when he assured the French newspaper Le Figaro that he would have no compunction about pressuring Sharon.

�If I were afraid to take the decisions necessary to move the process forward, I wouldn�t have gone on this trip to the Middle East,� he declared.

A few days earlier, in a private conversation at the White House, Bush was reportedly asked how he could be sure Sharon would go along with him and make the necessary concessions. �Because he owes me,� the president replied confidently.

Indeed, Sharon has a lot to thank the American president for.

The American-led war in Iraq removed a major strategic threat to Israel; the United States allowed Sharon virtually a free hand in fighting Palestinian terror; and in the run-up to Israel�s acceptance of the American-inspired �road map� to peace, Bush gave the green light for a billion-dollar defense deal under which Israel is to supply India with state-of-the-art Phalcon air-mounted radar systems.

At Tuesday�s summit, Arab states agreed to Bush�s request to back the road map.

The president is also asking Egypt and Jordan to send ambassadors back to Israel as soon as there are tangible signs of progress.

�I hope that as we move forward in this process down the road map, both Egypt and Jordan will see the merit at an appropriate moment to return their ambassadors,� Secretary of State Colin Powell said Tuesday in Egypt.

At the Aqaba summit on Wednesday, both Sharon and Abbas made far-reaching commitments: Abbas announced an end to the armed intifada against Israel.

�We will spare no effort, using all our resources, to end the militarization of the intifada, and we will succeed,� he declared. �The armed intifada must end and we must resort to peaceful means in our quest to end the occupation.�

Sharon came out strongly in favor of Palestinian statehood, and promised to start removing what he called �unauthorized� settler outposts.

�It is in Israel�s interest not to govern the Palestinians, but for the Palestinians to govern themselves in their own state,� he averred.

And he added that Israel was fully aware of the Palestinians� need for contiguous territory on the West Bank for that state to be viable.

Bush carefully listed the major commitments made by both parties, and made it clear that he would hold them accountable.

�These leaders of conscience have made their declarations today in the cause of peace,� he said. �We expect both parties to keep their promises.�

To underline just how serious he is, Bush is sending in a team of about a dozen monitors, mostly CIA officials, to determine where the parties are carrying out their road map obligations and where they are not. And the word is that any side that creates obstacles will be publicly rebuked.

The president also named John Wolf to be special U.S. Middle East envoy to help implement the road map. A team headed by Wolf, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation, was slated to arrive in the Middle East following the summit.

Wolf is relatively unknown, and has little experience in the Middle East conflict.

As far as he went in condemning terror and violence against �Israelis everywhere,� Abbas failed to commit to the notion of Israel as a Jewish state.

This led to renewed right-wing criticism of the entire road map approach.

Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Knesset�s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, says unless such a commitment is forthcoming, Israel should refuse to move into the second phase of the road map, which leads to the creation of a Palestinian mini-state.

Abbas, meanwhile, has said it will take weeks before Palestinian security forces are in a position to keep the peace.

Still, the Palestinians have at least three very good reasons to achieve and maintain a cease-fire:

� the weakness of the post-Iraq Arab world;

� Sharon�s planned security fence, which would leave them only small truncated areas of the West Bank if they don�t cut a deal soon; and

� the fact that a triumphal George Bush is ready to lean on Israel. If the Palestinians keep the cease-fire, and Bush pressures Israel to make major reciprocal moves, Sharon could be the one leader strong enough to make concessions and carry the country with him.

(Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.)

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