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Looking Beyond the Summit: Optimists and Skeptics Abound

June 3, 2003
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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 meets 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 further 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 Yisrael Beiteinu, 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 its 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 kick-start a new peace process, is 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 was to attend summits in Egypt with Arab leaders on Tuesday, and in Jordan with Sharon and Abbas, on Wednesday.

In late May, the president 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 in 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 command and control systems.

The president is also pressuring the Arab states to support the road map, and asking Egypt and Jordan to send ambassadors back to Israel as soon as there are tangible signs of progress.

For the Palestinians, too, the president’s message will be clear: Stop the terror or nothing will go forward.

To underline just how serious they are, the Americans are 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.

There are also conflicting reports about whether the president intends to send in a high-powered special envoy.

At the summit, the president was expected to say some of the things he hoped the Israelis and Palestinians would say themselves — reaffirming a two-state vision of Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace, and that to achieve it, the Palestinians must end terror and Israel must end the occupation. Bush was also expected to say that Israel must accept the notion of a Palestinian state and the Palestinians the notion of a Jewish state.

Two U.S. envoys now in the region, the State Department’s William Burns and Elliott Abrams of the National Security Council, tried, apparently unsuccessfully, to get the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to make some of these statements at the summit themselves.

Sharon refused to repeat the term “occupation,” because that might imply Israel had no right to any part of the “occupied” territories, and Abbas wouldn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, because that might imply Palestinian refugees had no “right of return” to Israel proper.

Instead, Sharon was expected to say that Israel is committed to Bush’s vision of two states, that it has no wish to continue to rule over 3.5 million Palestinians, and that despite Israel’s historic right to settle everywhere in the land of Israel, it will dismantle illegal settler outposts.

The dismantling of the outposts, said to number about 100, will be a major Israeli quid pro quo for a Palestinian cease-fire that sticks.

For his part, Abbas was expected to announce an end to the armed intifada, according to media reports, as well as declare Israel’s right to exist in peace.

The draft of the Palestinian statement reportedly says that the “armed intifada must come to an end, and we will turn to peaceful measures.”

“We will invest all our efforts, while using all the means at our disposal, to alter the intifada’s military nature, and we will succeed,” the Israeli paper, Ha’aretz reported Monday.

But Abbas’ failure to commit to the notion of Israel as a Jewish state has 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.

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