Even the most enthusiastic boosters of this week’s Middle East summit in Sharm el-Sheikh aren’t claiming that the brief gathering signaled the dawn of some new era of harmony and peace. The meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, together with the heads of neighboring states, did little more than ratify some practical understandings that might, with luck, allow the sides to cool off and begin exploring ways to resolve their deeper disagreements in a civil way. Peace has not arrived. But the two warring peoples have agreed to start looking seriously for a way to bring it — beginning with an honest try at ending their killing of one another. Given the depths of despair and bloodshed that have plagued the region for the last four and a half years, that is not a small thing.
Yes, much can go wrong in the weeks ahead to torpedo the shaky truce. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, has vowed to end all attacks by Palestinians against Israelis, but it’s unclear how his Palestinian Authority will be able to stop the murderous designs of radical groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Ariel Sharon, the Israeli leader, has agreed in return to halt military operations against Palestinians, including assassinations of suspected terrorist leaders, but the halt is dependent on the Palestinians ending their attacks so the Israeli army doesn’t have to do it for them. The same is true of various promised Israeli measures to ease Palestinian daily life, such as lifting roadblocks and handing over West Bank cities to Palestinian control: Israel is offering to lighten its thumb on the assumption that Palestinians will stop trying to kill Israelis. The burden is thus on Abbas and his authority to deliver their cease-fire and make it stick.
It must be remembered, though, that for Abbas to end attacks, both a carrot and a stick will be required. He’ll need to show results — easing of conditions, restoration of services and, not least, release of prisoners — in order to carry his public with him in the long run. Israel can’t wait for him to finish his part of the bargain before it starts delivering its share.
For all possible pitfalls, though, it’s important not to lose sight of the very real changes that have made this halting new start possible. One, of course, was the death last November of Yasser Arafat, whose mercurial, outsized presence at the helm of the Palestinian Authority prevented any serious movement toward civility. Another is the success of Israel’s security services in preventing Palestinian attacks during the past year; the dramatic reduction in Israeli casualties — and the iron-fisted Israeli tactics that reduced them — have helped convince a critical mass of Palestinians that their strategy of “armed resistance” is in fact pointless. That shift created the political opening for Abbas to step forward with his diplomatic alternative.
The most important change, however, is Sharon’s plan for unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank. The plan constitutes the first time in the 37 years since Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza that any Israeli government has taken a concrete step toward dismantling settlements and pulling out of territory the Palestinians consider theirs. Other Israeli leaders — Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak and even Benjamin Netanyahu — have talked of a readiness to compromise and leave the Palestinians to themselves in some theoretical future scenario. None of them, however, ever acted to dismantle settlements. Sharon is acting.
The withdrawal Sharon plans is still months away from implementation. Even when completed, it will only be a partial withdrawal, far less than anything the Palestinians consider a minimum. The domestic opposition Sharon must overcome is fearsome. Nor is it clear, once real peace talks begin, how the two sides will resolve such thorny issues as Jerusalem and refugees.
What matters, though, is the fact of movement. For years, each side was waiting for the other to take the first step. Now Sharon has broken the deadlock. In a move not unlike that of Anwar Sadat when he went to Jerusalem in 1977, Israel’s iconic man of war has stepped forward to untangle the knot, without waiting for the other side. The drama of Sharon’s personal transformation, and his battle with his life-long allies to press his plan forward, have captured imaginations worldwide and changed the nature of the conflict. Even Sharon himself seems surprised by the magnitude of the change he has wrought. But it is real.
No, peace has not arrived. It’s too early to pop the champagne. Still, a shot of schnapps is certainly in order.