Cautious optimism in the Middle East

We've heard all the promises before. But this time, maybe peace really will break out.

By Aluf Benn

Published February 15, 2005 8:44PM (EST)

The scenery is very familiar to any reporter who has covered the Arab-Israeli peace process. The marvelous Red Sea vistas under the everlasting sun. The courteous but unmistakably tough security guards. The endless but dull live broadcasts about "new hope." The rosy speeches of leaders, pledging a better future to "our children and grandchildren," cut and pasted from similar statements in the past. We've all been there and heard these promises time and again, only to return, after several days or weeks, to reporting on another round of violence, hatred and bloodshed.

"The four-way summit" convened last Tuesday at the Egyptian resort of Sharm El-Sheikh, at the tip of the Sinai Peninsula, followed the same old script. The host, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and his distinguished guests -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and King Abdullah of Jordan -- played their roles exactly as planned. Abbas and Sharon declared a cease-fire after more than four years of Palestinian-Israeli fighting, which cost the lives of thousands, but ended in a draw. They shook hands for the photographers to show the end of the intifada, and spoke about a new chapter in their two peoples' troubled relations. Sharon put security on top of his agenda, demanding an active Palestinian fight against terrorist groups. Abbas called for movement on the "road map," the plan for Palestinian statehood, asking Sharon to support him by releasing old prisoners serving life sentences in Israel for their past involvement in deadly terror attacks.

Returning home from Sharm El-Sheikh, I looked back at my records from the first "four-way summit," convened in Cairo exactly 10 years ago, in February 1995. Among its participants, only Mubarak remains alive and in power. Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein are all dead. It was a chilling experience: The texts are virtually identical. It's as if nothing happened in the last decade. After all the agreements, and negotiations, and attacks and counterattacks, we came back to the same point. Then, as now, the summit was called to "save the peace process" following a violent derailing. Now, as then, the Palestinian side demands political progress, while Israel responds with "stop terror first." And once again, the Israeli leader boasts to reporters about how he convinced Arab leaders of the paramount importance of security.

There were more similarities with past events. The hall where Sharon, Abbas and Mubarak gave their televised speeches was the same one where Arafat and Ehud Barak signed the Sharm El-Sheikh memorandum of 1999, the last political Israeli-Palestinian agreement. All but forgotten now, that old document carried the same Israeli pledges of prisoner release and building a seaport in Gaza.

And yet, I am cautiously more optimistic this time.

Professional skepticism notwithstanding, there are several key differences between the Sharm El-Sheikh summit and its predecessors -- differences that give it a better chance of success.

First, its composition. Arafat is dead and buried. His heir, Abbas, is leading a different policy of diplomacy and negotiations, rather than glorifying the "armed struggle" like his predecessor. Arafat's trademark fatigues and kaffiyeh (head scarf) and his theatrical gestures, always prone to steal the show, have been replaced by an unremarkable blue suit and soft voice. Three months after Arafat's disappearance from the show, Israelis have better justification for their long-standing position that he was "not a partner" for peace. In his first days in office, Abbas deployed Palestinian Authority forces in Gaza to halt rocket firing against Israel. This move was previously unthinkable, and it showed that the forces were always there, waiting for orders that were never given.

Since hearing of Arafat's terminal illness, Abbas returned from his self-imposed political exile and made zero mistakes. He took power smoothly, holding and winning presidential elections, and moved swiftly to rein all Palestinian factions behind his cease-fire. Having learned a lesson from his short, ill-fated tenure as P.A. premier under Arafat, in 2003, this time Abbas distanced himself from American and Israeli embraces. Instead, he paid more attention to gaining legitimacy among the Palestinians and in the Arab world.

The United States, while supporting Abbas as promising peace and stability, agreed to step aside. New Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who visited Jerusalem and Ramallah on her first international tour, stayed away from the Sharm El-Sheikh summit. In the previous peacemaking attempt at the June 2003 Aqaba summit, President George W. Bush came to the region, and his staffers drafted the leaders' speeches. But Aqaba quickly collapsed, as Abbas proved too weak to deliver with Arafat undermining him from behind and Sharon not offering needed concessions. This time, the White House allowed Sharon and Abbas' negotiation teams to draft the speeches on their own. The results were less impressive, but somehow more convincing.

The Sharon who came to Sharm El-Sheikh is also different. He is not the stubborn leader who was dragged to Aqaba by an overenthusiastic Bush, but a newborn moderate who has undergone a sea change. The former builder of settlements, who vowed not to withdraw an inch except if the Palestinians surrendered, is now calling for Israel's evacuation of its settlements and forces from the Gaza strip and the northern West Bank. His disengagement plan is slated for implementation in the summer, and Sharon appears determined to push it through, despite considerable domestic resistance.

Even if he launched the pullout idea to fend off sinking popularity and legal threats, which jeopardized his job in late 2003, it has now passed the point of no return. Sharon has committed himself to Bush, his main international backer, and is standing firm against threats of violent opposition from his former settler allies. Sharon's ruling party, Likud, is torn; 13 of its 40-member parliamentary faction are outright "rebels" who are voting against Sharon, while others are trying to have it both ways and have called for a national referendum -- a euphemism for a long postponement, and possibly the political and legal burial, of the withdrawal plan. When Rice came to Jerusalem, she told her interlocutors that disengagement should be carried out as planned, according to the original, summer-bound schedule. From Sharon's, and America's, perspective, the approval of Israel's Cabinet and Knesset is politically sufficient, and no referendum is needed.

Sharon's disengagement plan is the second, and more profound, difference in the process. Unlike the past, when leaders' positions were the mere opening for tough bargaining at negotiation sessions, this time the direction has already been set by the Israeli decision. Sharon suggested coordinating the Gaza withdrawal with the P.A., to enable proper hand-over of the settlement assets, and to provide better security for the evacuation itself. But the scope of withdrawal and its timetable are not negotiable. While this may appear to be a humiliating Israeli dictum to the Palestinians, it has great advantages for both sides. It frees them from costly give-and-take, bound to inevitable disputes and crises, at this fragile stage.

Since Abbas took office, Israeli and Palestinian ministers, officers and negotiators have met almost daily to discuss mutual demands. They are talking about security arrangements, prisoner releases, and the hand-over of West Bank cities reoccupied by Israel in 2002 following a wave of Palestinian suicide attacks. But with all their importance, these are only minor issues. The looming "Gaza plus" withdrawal spares the negotiators from dealing with the more sensitive issues separating Israelis and Palestinians, like borders, refugees and Jerusalem, all touching the rawest nerves of their national identities. The disengagement timetable allows both sides to deal with their domestic challenges first, while rebuilding trust through tackling less volatile issues.

The coming months will not be easy for either Abbas or Sharon. Both face enormous leadership challenges. The Palestinian leader must consolidate his power and rebuild the P.A.'s political system and security apparatus, while maintaining the cease-fire. At the same time, Sharon is facing a showdown with the settlers, which may turn violent. Personal attacks against him have become nastier. A decade after Rabin's assassination by a right-wing zealot, threats to the prime minister's life are taken very seriously in Israel.

According to the current timetable, only next year -- after Israel's disengagement and possibly another Israeli election -- will the two sides start meaningful negotiations over the fate of the West Bank and the establishment of a Palestinian state (albeit in interim borders). If mutual trust is built in the meantime, backed by a stable cease-fire and visible change on the ground, it may be easier to reach a deal.

The third "optimism factor" is the behavior of the international community, which appears more responsive to both sides' needs and constraints. International support is essential for both sides. It strengthens the Palestinian stance vis-`-vis Israel, and rewards Israeli concessions with diplomatic legitimacy and global acceptance. With Arafat gone, Washington reopened its channels to Ramallah. Rice's visit was far more successful than Colin Powell's disappointing trips to the region. She pledged money and security assistance, and received a commitment from Abbas to catch the murderers of three American security guards in a Gaza diplomatic convoy, in October 2003. Since then, American officials have refused to enter the Gaza strip.

Sharon, on his part, has convinced foreign leaders of his sincerity over the Gaza pullout. European and Arab governments, which previously viewed Sharon as a die-hard obstacle for peace, are now pinning their hopes on his leadership and determination. Egypt's Mubarak, who previously cursed Sharon as a brutal warmonger, is now hailing him as a man of peace. Sharon's invitation to Egypt, after 23 years of being treated as persona non grata there, is a public rehabilitation from the leader of the Arab world. The unprecedented withdrawal pledge has given Sharon clemency for his past sins against the Palestinians.

Mubarak, who is aiming for his fifth six-year presidential term in an unchallenged October referendum, was undoubtedly prodded by Bush's call in his State of the Union address for democracy in Egypt, and by the images of the Iraqi elections. Being nice to Israel is an old Egyptian trick to hold off American grudges. But the outcome has brought new life to regional ditente, which has all but stopped since the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian hostilities in September 2000.

For all these reasons, I am cautiously optimistic that the year 2005 could bring positive change to Israeli-Palestinian relations. The rifts and disagreements have not disappeared, and will undoubtedly come back to the surface. But under the leadership of the anti-violence Abbas, and the more compromising Sharon, there may be a better chance for a more peaceful resolution of the dispute over the Holy Land, or at least for a period of quiet and rehabilitation, as both leaders tackle their rivals at home.

Aluf Benn

Aluf Benn is the diplomatic editor of the Israeli daily Haaretz and has been a regular contributor to Salon since 2001.


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