WASHINGTON - Today's summit of Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian and Jordanian leaders marks a historic step in the quest for peace in the Middle East.
In what surely is a positive development toward securing a more stable future for the region, a de facto cease-fire agreement between Israelis and Palestinians most likely will emerge from the summit at the tip of the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. Discussions of security coordination for Israel's disengagement from Gaza beginning in July probably will be the other main item on the agenda.
The summit among Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah II illustrates a new window of opportunity in which goodwill measures will be taken by Israelis and Palestinians to build trust and move toward peace. President Bush has extended invitations to meet separately with Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas this spring, and both have accepted his invitation.
Israel plans to release 400 to 900 Palestinian prisoners as a confidence-building gesture. The prisoner issue is sensitive for Palestinians because a considerable number of them have been detained without charge and there are widespread allegations of abuses and torture in Israeli prisons.
The decisions by Egypt and Jordan to return their ambassadors to Israel in the near future is certain to be viewed by Israelis as a signal marking the end of isolationism between their country and its neighbors. While this is a significant step, many Palestinians hope that Mr. Sharon will implement the U.S.-backed "road map" to peace leading to their ultimate goal - a viable Palestinian state. President Bush's vision of two states, Palestine and Israel, living side by side in peace is still achievable and is the desire of the majority of people in the region.
The entire Arab world wants to see the Palestinians achieve independence. The Arab League stated in March 2002 that it would declare an end to the conflict with Israel if a state of Palestine was created based on the pre-1967 Arab-Israeli war borders, with its capital in East Jerusalem and a just settlement to the refugee problem. But some Israelis do not want to share Jerusalem as a capital for two states.
There is much hope for an agreement on the final contours for peace, but progress can be made only in an atmosphere of relative calm. The difficult issues such as Jerusalem still need to be addressed.
Recent surveys have shown that there is consensus among Israelis and Palestinians that the existing Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem should be the capital of a Palestinian state. But if East Jerusalem is excluded from being a part of the Palestinian state, there could be a major confrontation with the Muslim world over this issue for the next century.
According to a recent study released by the National Intelligence Council, Muslims are the fastest-growing segment among religious adherents worldwide. It said there are 1.25 billion Muslims, which equates to roughly one of every five people on the planet. An overwhelming majority of them believe the holy mosque in East Jerusalem, known as the Dome of Rock, the third-holiest site in Islam, should be under Palestinian control. While this issue most likely won't be discussed at today's summit, it should be addressed soon.
Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have lived under harsh Israeli military occupation since 1967, and many Arabs and Muslims remain skeptical about whether the Palestinians will be given independence. The consequences for another missed opportunity for a lasting peace agreement could be dangerous.
Supporters of a two-state solution to the conflict will be pushed aside if a new round of peace talks fails. It will be worse if talks fail while Israel continues to expand settlements in the West Bank and builds a security wall around Greater Jerusalem that would make it impossible for Palestinians to have a viable state with East Jerusalem as its capital. Extremists in the Muslim world, from Kashmir to Casablanca, will start gaining ground in their calls for a holy war to "liberate" Jerusalem.
It is imperative that we do not let this window of opportunity close while there is a moderate Palestinian leadership willing to share Jerusalem with Israel. If we do let another opportunity for peace pass, we will be planting a seed that guarantees that the conflict will become intractable.
Nino Kader is the director of communications at the American Task Force on Palestine.