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Sharon & Abbas

At their Sharm el Sheikh summit, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon have announced a cease-fire. Abbas said all attacks against Israelis everywhere would be halted. The newly elected Palestinian leader declared that the quiet starting today was a new start on the road to peace and the first step toward the Roadmap which calls for Israel and Palestine to live in peace. The cessation of hostilities would grant both the Palestinian and Israeli peoples the opportunity to move swiftly ahead in the peace negotiations.

At the same time, Abbas called for a halt to Israeli settlement activity, and the release of all Palestinian prisoners. He criticized Israel’s building of the security fence to keep out suicide bombers, saying the fence was not conducive to co-existence. As for the permanent settlement, the Palestinians seek a state on the 1967 lines with Jerusalem its capital and the Palestinian leader also said the refugee issue must be resolved in the final status negotiations.

Sharon - Mubarak

Abbas, as did Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, also called for Syria and Lebanon to be included in the peace process. For his part, the Palestinian leader pledged to keep all his commitments adding that the Palestinian people had opted for peace by voting him into office in last month’s election. He declared that the Palestinians must have ‘one authority and one gun!’ However, Abbas added this must be achieved not by force but through dialogue.

It's now official, after more than four years of bloodshed, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced an unconditional cessation of hostilities. They pledged an end to the violence and not to miss what both see as a new opportunity to make peace, but the pitfalls are many and the dangers great.So far, so good. The Sharm el Sheikh summit achieved its purpose - to create a corridor for the two leaders to emerge from the horrors of the al Aksa intifada and start rebuilding an atmosphere conducive to peace negotiations. Will it succeed? It's impossible to know but it is clear that without some mutual trust and understanding it will be well nigh impossible to move ahead. With the international community and the U.S. watching 'like a hawk' both Sharon and Abbas will and should be leery of being blamed for straying from this new corridor to the Roadmap itself.

Present status: The Palestinians and Israel arrived at the Sharm el Sheikh truce as a result of two factors: first, Yasser Arafat's departure and second the realization by both sides that neither had a 'military solution' to the conflict. The Palestinians launched the intifada in the belief that Israel would break under the wave of suicide bombers. Israeli intelligence says that Abbas and several of his colleagues realized this had not worked; on the contrary, it was proving disastrous for the Palestinians themselves. Israel withstood the onslaught, more or less contained the terrorism and Prime Minister Sharon adopted a disengagement policy and hunkering down behind a security fence. The emergence of an elected Palestinian leader, who rejects terrorism as an instrument of policy, has at least opened the door to taking another crack at resolving the conflict. However, there should be no mistake, the strategic goals of Mahmoud Abbas may be no different than those of Yasser Arafat.


SHORT RANGE Mahmoud Abbas wants to move quickly through the 'corridor' into full-scale negotiations on the Roadmap and the two-state solution. He apparently believes this will build Palestinian support for his course of action. On the other hand, Ariel Sharon talks of proceeding with caution because the current opportunity is so very fragile. Sharon, also in need of public backing, prefers to go slow for the same reason Abbas wants to speed up.

Palestinian Prisoners 'with blood on their hands': A highly emotional issue on both sides and which could only be prevented from spoiling the summit by setting up a joint committee to examine it, after Sharm el Sheikh. In Israel, both the right and left agree that Palestinian killers after the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993 should not be released. There is a public debate over freeing terrorists before Oslo, not only to make the punishment fit the crime but also because many terrorists, released by Israel in the past, returned to attacking Israelis. The Shabak Security Service, which tracks down the killers, is dead against freeing them. One possibility could involve the Israeli return of security responsibility of five west Bank towns to the Palestinian Authority. Israel should consider releasing terrorists on 'probation' to their hometowns where the PA takes control. These prisoners, involved in the murder and maiming of Israelis could also be requested to sign a legal document pledging never to be involved in terrorism again and if so, they would face life terms without parole. (There is no death sentence in Israel except for the crime of genocide or treason during wartime).

Terror Groups: Although President Abbas has persuaded Hamas and the Islamic Jihad to go along with the 'houdna' cease-fire he has no plans for taking them on when it comes to enforcing his aspiration of 'one authority, one weapon'. His approach is one of dialogue. However, Prime Minister Sharon argues that terrorists in tact will one day explode into a new round of violence torpedoing the process. In other words, Sharon says 'clobber the terrorists' while Abbas says 'coddle them.'


Refugees: Abbas demands that all the Palestinian refugees should be allowed to return to Israel. Sharon has said that not one Palestinian will be entitled to come back to Israel as a refugee. There is a general consensus in Israel that if the country were flooded with Palestinian refugees, it would spell the end of the Jewish state. This raises the question of whether even Abbas recognizes the right of self-determination for the Jewish people in Israel. It remains to be seen whether the issue will simply be over the demarcation of the border between two states or whether Abbas accepts an independent Jewish state per se.

Borders: Abbas seeks a Palestinian state on the old 1967 lines with Jerusalem its capital. Sharon rejects both demands out of hand.

Syria & Lebanon: Both Abbas and Egypt's President Mubarak want Syria and Lebanon in the peace process as soon as possible. Even if Sharon wanted to, which he probably doesn't, it would extremely tough politically to manage an Israeli withdrawal on the Golan Heights while trying to implement the highly controversial evacuation of the Gaza Strip. In fact, public opinion polls show most Israelis want to get out of Gaza whereas most want to stay put on the Golan.

Egypt & Jordan: Their presence at the summit has put an Arab 'stamp of approval' on the move by Abbas to call off the terrorism and get back to the table. The Mubarak-Sharon handshake may go a long way in the Arab world as well as improving the Egyptian leader's status in Washington. It is not without symbolism, Sharon and Mubarak, both old war horses, generals in their respective armies who met on the battlefield, now leaders talking peace.

Sharon's Speech: Some pundits call it the most important of his career. It was very carefully crafted. Considered the most hard line of any Israeli leader, Sharon's speech could have been given by Shimon Peres. The Prime Minister reached out to the Palestinians and the Arab world talking of reconciliation and almost a 'new Middle East'. On the other hand, Sharon also appealed to Israelis not to miss the opportunity with a vision for the future.

At Sharm el Sheikh, Mahmoud Abbas and Ariel Sharon embarked on a new course; they must now translate their talk of good intentions into political reality. The toughest part has yet to begin.

David Essing

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