Build on the momentum

February 10, 2005|By Fawaz A. Gerges

THE SUMMIT between Israeli and Palestinian leaders was a welcome first step in a long, complex and risky journey.

Its importance is symbolic and psychological, not substantive, since the two parties could not agree on a joint declaration of a cease-fire or signatures on a document. They announced a de facto cease-fire instead.

Major differences exist between the Palestinian and Israeli leadership on security and the political-diplomatic track.

But the Israeli-Arab gathering this week in Egypt created a new momentum, and if concrete steps are taken, the dynamics of Palestinian-Israeli relations could change for the positive.

After their confidence-building measures, it would be reassuring to see the two sides move forward and tackle the thorny issues of peace-making, including setting the borders of a future Palestinian state, Israeli security, Jewish settlements, the status of East Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is caught between a rock - U.S. and Israeli demands to end the armed intifada (which he did unilaterally) - and a hard place, Hamas and Islamic Jihad's calls on him to remain steadfast and not to make further concessions. Mr. Abbas must show the Palestinians that he is making progress. He must convince them that peace is on the horizon.

If Israel and the United States are serious about this new moment of hope, they must work hard to support Mr. Abbas and give Palestinians a stake in the future, because the Palestinians are watching their leader closely to see if he can deliver the goods.

Although Mr. Abbas persuaded Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both of them radical Islamist organizations, to agree to a temporary cease-fire, the latter's spokesmen in the Gaza Strip struck a cautionary note, saying they would evaluate the summit before committing themselves to halting their military campaign against Israeli occupation.

For example, Hamas said after the summit that it was not bound by the cease-fire. Mr. Abbas' declaration "expresses only the position of the Palestinian Authority. It does not express the position of the Palestinian movements," said Hamas spokesman Mushir al-Masri.

Indeed, Mr. Abbas faces major hurdles at home. His hands are tied, his options limited. He must show progress on the peace process, root out corruption and improve the quality of life by rebuilding Palestinian institutions. If he doesn't, he won't last long. Hamas would likely inherit the spoils.

Mr. Abbas' power base is dangerously narrow. Only 46 percent of eligible voters voted in the recent presidential elections, of which Mr. Abbas won 60 percent. This is in contrast with the 78 percent turnout that Yasser Arafat elicited in 1996 when he was elected head of the Palestinian Authority.

As for Israel, the United States and the international community must impress on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon the need to tackle the big questions relating to a viable Palestinian state. This implies a willingness to delineate the borders of the new state and the location of its capital and to address Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Palestinian refugees.

It's not enough for the United States and Israel to praise Mr. Abbas. President Bush, who had refused to meet with Mr. Arafat, said he was impressed by Mr. Abbas' commitment to fighting terror and invited him to Washington in the spring. His administration appears to be mainly concerned about confidence-building measures between the antagonists and security, not plunging fully into high-level shuttle diplomacy.

But as history will attest, no major progress can be achieved in Israeli-Palestinian peace-making without active engagement by a U.S. president and his senior aides.

Mr. Abbas cannot negotiate with Hamas and Islamic Jihad for a permanent cease-fire without something substantive to back him up. Public opinion polls show clearly that Palestinians support Hamas and Islamic Jihad's armed campaign against Israeli military occupation. Mr. Abbas must convince Palestinian public opinion that his path - not that of the militants - will ultimately bring peace and independence.

It's crucial that Israel act now to release Palestinian prisoners (who number about 8,000), withdraw its troops from Palestinian cities and towns and begin to dismantle settlements on the West Bank. A viable peace settlement is the safest way to marginalize Hamas and Islamic Jihad and ensure Israeli security in the longer term.

Achieving a breakthrough on the Palestinian-Israeli track would likely reduce tensions in Iraq and the region as well as cripple Islamic extremism and bin Ladenism.

Fawaz Gerges holds the Christian A. Johnson chair in Middle East and International Affairs at Sarah Lawrence College in New York and is the author of the forthcoming The Jihadists: Unholy Warriors.

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