On 'new path,' Sharon and Abbas call truce

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 09-Feb-05 | Author: Steven Erlanger| Source: International Herald Tribune

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (L) shakes hands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during their meeting at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt February 8, 2005.
SHARM EL SHEIK, Egypt The new Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel declared an effective cease-fire here Tuesday in the four-year, low-intensity war known as the intifada.

Abbas said that he and Sharon "have jointly agreed to cease all acts of violence against Israelis and Palestinians everywhere." Sharon, in a separate statement, said he and Abbas "agreed that all Palestinians will stop all acts of violence against all Israelis everywhere, and in parallel, Israel will cease all its military activity against all Palestinians everywhere."

Both men, in statements coordinated with each other, spoke of a new "opportunity" for peace and calm, and of a new beginning - a chance "to disengage from the path of blood," as Sharon put it, "and start on a new path."

Abbas said: "The calm which will prevail in our lands starting from today is the beginning of a new era," and he vowed to spare no effort "to protect this emerging opportunity for peace."

Both men were careful not to use the word "cease-fire." But if they can succeed in turning this period of relative quiet into a real cessation of violence, followed by agreed moves to reduce the impact of Israeli occupation on the Palestinians and serious negotiations about peace, the moves on Tuesday will mark an important turning point in relations.

But there was an immediate reminder of the fragility of the declarations on Tuesday from the radical Palestinian group, Hamas. Hamas spokesmen insisted that Abbas's declaration of a truce was not binding on them, but a unilateral declaration of the Palestinian Authority.

In Beirut, a Hamas spokesman, Osama Hamdaneh, said the cease-fire "does not commit the Palestinian resistance" because it was not fully negotiated with Hamas and all Palestinian prisoners were not released. In Gaza, another Hamas spokesman, Mushir al-Masri, said the Abbas declaration "expresses only the position of the Palestinian Authority and does not express the point of view of the factions," and he insisted that "the summit hasn't led to anything new and the Israeli position hasn't changed."

Hamas has agreed to a temporary period of quiet, and Hamas statements on Tuesday may be more rhetorical than substantive, an effort to remind Palestinians that Hamas has been fighting the Israelis, not making concessions to them.

But the Hamas rebuttals are a sharp reminder of the limits of Abbas's authority right now, even with the backing of Egypt and Jordan, and of the fragility of the declarations made Tuesday.

Israel has made it clear that if attacks do continue and Abbas does little to stop them, Israel will resume its military activity.

"One can only have a cease-fire with a state or authority that controls security," a senior Israeli official cautioned here. "You can't have a cease-fire with armed terrorist groups, because you give them a veto over peace.

"What we have today is a cessation of violence, and it can become something more if Abbas moves to crack down" on the militants, take away their weapons and destroy their mortar and rocket factories, the Israeli official said.

Abbas has not yet named a new cabinet or reformed his security forces, the Israelis point out, with one senior military official saying: "We know he needs time, and we will give him time, but he doesn't have a limitless amount of time."

But the day was filled with the symbolism of renewed hopes, as the Israeli and Palestinian leaders sat at a large round table with their host, the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, and Jordan's King Abdullah II. In the hall, the Israeli flag was displayed next to the Egyptian, Jordanian and Palestinian flags, Israeli spokesmen spun their wares on Egyptian and Arab television stations and both Egypt and Jordan announced that they would soon return their ambassadors to Israel.

Sharon, on only his second visit to an Arab country as prime minister - he commanded Israeli forces who took this resort in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war - had long and cordial meetings with Mubarak, whose aides talked of a visit to Israel, and with Abbas, with whom he chatted in English and invited on a working visit to his farm in Israel.

Abbas, elected as president of the Palestinian Authority in December after the death of Yasser Arafat, said it was time for the Palestinians "to regain their freedom" and "put an end to decades of suffering and pain."

He promised Palestinians that they would live under "one authority, one weapon and political pluralism" - meaning an end to political chaos, the prevalence of armed gangs and resistance groups, and representation for Hamas and Islamic Jihad through democratic politics.

Abbas urged the Israelis to move quickly back to the peace plan called the road map and engage in serious political negotiations about a final peace settlement. And he said that the declarations made Tuesday, together with what will follow, are already important parts of the road map's first stage.

"We want to replace the language of bullets and bombs with the language of dialogue, to have the language of dialogue instead of the wall," Abbas said, referring to the separation barrier Israel is building in the West Bank to guard against suicide bombers. If there is a real cease-fire, pressure will mount on Israel to stop building the barrier, especially on Palestinian land.

But Israeli officials insisted that the declarations still left the two sides in a "pre-road map situation," one of them said, suggesting that Sharon was too vulnerable with his plan to pull Israeli settlers out of Gaza to be able to deal with more controversy over illegal settlement and outpost construction in the West Bank.

Israel, in other words, is insisting that Abbas implement his obligations to destroy the infrastructure of terrorism in the first stage of the road map before Israel begins to implement its own obligations to stop new settlement activity and dismantle up to 50 outposts erected after March 2001. Hamas's statements Tuesday are likely to solidify that Israeli position.

Abbas is working to coopt Hamas and the other radicals by bringing them into democratic politics and negotiating a political role with them in return for an end to violence. His current foreign minister, Nabil Shaath, said Tuesday that Abbas "will explain to our brothers and to consolidate their adherence to the cease-fire."

But Shaath also warned that "from now on, any violation of the truce will be a violation of the national commitment and will have to be dealt with as such."

But Israelis are not only skeptical that Abbas will crack down on Hamas, they do not regard even a long truce as a substantive change in relations with the Palestinians until Hamas and the other militants are firmly under the control of a new, reformed Palestinian security force.

Still, quiet in Gaza will make it much easier for Sharon to carry out his Gaza plan, both politically and militarily, because it will allow the police and army to dismantle the settlements and evacuate the settlers without being shot at. And quiet will make it much easier for Abbas to carry out his urgent domestic agenda of reform - of his own Fatah movement, of the security forces and of the Palestinian Authority itself.

The absence of an American mediator made the meeting Tuesday seem, in a way, more important, because it was Cairo, not Washington, that had brought the sides together.

Speaking in Rome, the new U.S. secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, warned of a long road ahead for peace. She acknowledged the limits of the Palestinian security forces but said: "There are places where they can act."

When Palestinian forces arrest someone they should hold him, when they see a bomb-making facility they should destroy it and when they see smuggling they should stop it, she said, in words that will cheer Sharon.

The two sides also agreed on some further measures of good will. Israel will free about 900 out of 8,000 Palestinian prisoners and meet with Palestinians to discuss the release of another 230 or so who have been in jail since before the Oslo Accords of 1993.