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After Sharm Summit, Israelis and Palestinians Hope Better Times Ahead

February 9, 2005
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Israelis are calling the Sharm el-Sheik summit, held next to the sparkling waves of the Red Sea, the “Summit of Hope” — hope that the speeches and handshakes really will signify the end of four and a half years of bloodletting and despair. “Tikvah,” the Hebrew word for hope, was splashed in large bold letters on the front pages of Israel’s newspapers Tuesday, along with smiling photographs of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Reading quietly from prepared statements in their native languages, Sharon and Abbas tried to turn a new page at the summit, after the bloody years of the intifada.

“Today in my meeting with Chairman Abbas, we agreed the Palestinians would stop all acts of violence against Israelis everywhere, and in parallel, Israel would cease its military activity against the Palestinians everywhere,” Sharon said.

But Sharon also issued a warning, noting that terrorist groups have not acceded to the truce and have pledged only a temporary suspension of attacks.

“This is a very fragile opportunity, that the extremists will want to exploit. They want to close the window of opportunity for us and allow our two peoples to drown in their blood,” he said.

Like Sharon, Abbas expressed misgivings — for example, Israel is unlikely to agree to Palestinian demands to release all Palestinian prisoners or dismantle its West Bank security fence — but hazarded a little optimism.

“For the first time in a long time, there exists in our region hope for a better future for our children and grandchildren,” Abbas said.

When it came to discussing longer-term prospects, however, the rhetoric diverged.

Abbas spoke of the U.S.-led “road map” peace plan, which envisions an independent Palestinian state. The host of the summit, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, pitched in with an appeal to “international legitimacy,” diplomatic parlance for U.N. resolutions that the Arab world insists require complete Israeli withdrawal from territory conquered in the 1967 Six-Day War — a view at odds with the Israeli and American position, and as the historical record makes clear, even with the resolutions’ stated intent.

There was no covenant signed at the summit, only talk of Sharon inviting Abbas to his Negev ranch and a possible follow-up summit in Ramallah, the West Bank seat of Palestinian government.

In a goodwill gesture, Egypt and Jordan announced they would return ambassadors they had withdrawn from Israel after violence erupted in 2000. Dashing Israeli hopes, however, they declined to say when the ambassadors would be returned, and one Jordanian official said the decision could be rescinded “in 10 seconds” should the peace process stall again.

Even U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who boosted hopes of a breakthrough with a whirlwind round of meetings with Sharon and Abbas earlier this week, struck a note of caution.

“Success is not assured, but America is resolute. This is the best chance for peace we are likely to see for some years to come — and we are acting to help Israelis and Palestinians seize this chance,” she told reporters in Paris.

Abbas pledged at the summit that Palestinians would cease all attacks on Israelis everywhere. Sharon in turn promised to end military actions in the Palestinian areas, if Palestinian attacks stop.

“It’s the intifada’s graduation party,” Aluf Benn wrote in the newspaper Ha’aretz.

But despite the fanfare and promises of a new dawn in Sharm el-Sheik, hopes have been strained by the years of fighting, distrust and profound sense of disappointment following the collapse of the Oslo peace accords.

The question that violence-weary Israelis and Palestinians are asking is what the words will bring. Both sides know the road ahead will be a difficult one.

The newly elected Abbas faces the daunting task of reining in terrorists over the long term. Sharon must press ahead with his planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank, despite the rift it threatens in Israeli society.

Still, even a verbal agreement to cease hostilities marks the most concrete step forward since the death of Yasser Arafat, Abbas’ predecessor, in November.

“I’m finding myself optimistic to spite myself,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. “I’m not sure it’s a good thing, because the great fear of those of us who initially supported Oslo is that we are going to be taken for a ride again.”

But, he added, “now suddenly Arafat is gone, there were free elections in the Palestinian territories and Iraq,” and Abbas is criticizing terrorism. “There seems to be something shifting.”

Still, Halevi noted, negotiations most likely would not lead to anything more than an interim peace deal, as the sides remain far from a final agreement.

Polls show a new air of optimism among Israelis. According to the Peace Index, a monthly Tel Aviv University survey, 77 percent of the Jewish public supports diplomatic negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. The survey also found that 51 percent of Jewish Israelis believe talks will lead to a peace agreement. Arab Israelis are even more optimistic, with more than 95 percent supporting negotiations.

A poll published Tuesday in the Yediot Achronot newspaper found that 67 percent of Israelis support the release of Palestinian prisoners, one of the main Palestinian demands for renewing relations.

Palestinian officials say they’re encouraged by Israel’s readiness to discuss the criteria for prisoner releases. For the first time, some Israeli officials raised the possibility of releasing prisoners who attacked Israelis before the Oslo peace accords were signed in 1993.

Rami Elhanan, whose teenage daughter Smadar was killed in a 1997 suicide bombing on Jerusalem’s Ben-Yehuda Street, said he is prepared to see the release of Palestinian prisoners.

“It’s not about justice, it’s about wisdom. The Palestinians see their prisoners as an important card in the negotiating process, and it’s a price I’m willing to pay,” Elhanan said on Israel Television. “We don’t plan on forgiving them but I think it’s time for reconciliation. Otherwise it will never end.”

Playing on the sense that the intifada just might be in the past, Israel Television broadcast a “Chronology of the intifada” showing video footage of key events in the conflict, set to somber background music.

Yediot Achronot listed intifada-related statistics: 1,558 days of conflict since September 2000, 138 suicide attacks, 3,592 Palestinians killed, 1,036 Israelis killed, 208 Palestinians assassinated and 7,054 Israelis injured.

On both sides, there’s a sense of exhaustion and a desire to return to normalcy.

Rice’s visit earlier this week and her assurances that U.S. monitors will be placed on the ground to oversee security coordination is adding to hopes that diplomacy will be backed with substance. Rice appointed Lt. Gen. William Ward as the security coordinator between Israel and the Palestinians.

Israeli analysts said a strong U.S. presence will be necessary if security coordination efforts are to have any effect. In the past, both sides have been reluctant to fulfill their obligations when there was no watchful eye overhead.

“Every two years we have a window of opportunity, but we don’t know if it will stay open or shut,” said David Newman, a political science professor at Ben Gurion University. He said Israel now will come under increased pressure to carry out its promised withdrawals.

At the summit, Sharon said that if there is progress with the Palestinians on the security front, it’s possible that Israel’s withdrawal will be coordinated with the Palestinian Authority and not unilateral, as originally planned.

“Given the experience of the last 10 years of huge plans and nothing implemented, Gaza will be a very important precedent which would change the political discourse vis-a-vis the West Bank,” Newman said.

The extent to which a withdrawal from Gaza will bring a reduction in violence and in the number of rockets shot into Israel will affect the Israeli public’s attitude toward any additional West Bank withdrawals, he added.

Shlomo Brom, a former director of strategic planning for the army who now is a senior researcher at Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, said a coordinated withdrawal from Gaza is best for Israel.

“I think it’s almost an imperative to work with the Palestinians on withdrawal,” Brom said. “We can do it without coordination technically; the question is what would happen afterward.”

Brom noted that Sharon himself appears uncertain about what to make of the recent flurry of diplomatic activity.

“The optimism bothers him because he does not really want negotiations with the Palestinians,” he said.

According to Brom, Sharon wants to see violence end but doesn’t believe a final peace deal with the Palestinians is possible because the gaps between the two sides’ positions are still so wide.

“Sharon says we will go ahead with disengagement, and after that see what happens,” Brom said.

JTA Correspondent Dan Baron in Jerusalem contributed to this story.

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