TEL AVIV — As suddenly as it fell apart four years ago, the Middle East peace process sprang back to life this week in a rapid-fire series of dramatic developments that left Israelis rubbing their eyes in disbelief.
The net result was optimism on both sides not seen since the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000. “This is the hour for the moderates in the Arab world,” Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told reporters Monday. “We have an opportunity that we must not miss.”
Shalom was speaking hours after the release from an Egyptian prison of Azzam Azzam, an Israeli Druze businessman whose arrest on flimsy spy charges eight years ago had been a serious diplomatic irritant. In the euphoria following the release, Shalom predicted that Israel might have diplomatic relations with as many as 10 Arab states within a year.
By midweek, Egypt’s official MENA news agency was reporting that Israel and the Palestinians were close to a cease-fire agreement that contained the “seeds” of a permanent peace settlement. Sources in the prime minister’s office called the announcement “a little premature” but did not deny it.
Leading up to the announcements were a series of events ranging from technical breakthroughs to sweeping gestures. Israeli and Egyptian military experts agreed December 1 on arrangements for Egypt to take security control of the Egypt-Gaza border and prevent weapons smuggling, closing one of the major gaps in Prime Minister Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan. A day later, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a longtime, bitter critic of Sharon, called on Palestinians to halt violence and work with the Israeli prime minister, calling Sharon the Palestinians’ best hope for peace.
Mubarak’s statement came as West Bank leaders of the Islamic militant Hamas movement announced their readiness to accept a long-term hudna, or truce, with Israel, allowing the Jewish state to live in peace and security for a “limited” but “renewable” period. The Hamas statement came after months of pressure by Egypt’s intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, to push Hamas into an agreement with the Palestinian Authority on ending attacks on Israelis and recognizing the Authority’s right to reach an agreement with Israel.
Leaders of the Islamic group’s Damascus-based exile wing, Moussa Abu Marzouk and Khaled Mashaal immediately denounced the Hamas cease-fire call.
This week, interim Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas met in Ramallah with German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and, according to reports, asked Fischer to lead international efforts to rein in the exiled militants. A day later, Abbas traveled to Damascus himself for a meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad, ending a decade-long break between Syria and the mainstream Palestinian leadership. Among other topics, the two are said to have discussed Syrian efforts to crack down on the Damascus-based Palestinian terrorist groups.
Mubarak, for his part, traveled to Kuwait this week to meet with leaders of the Gulf states and to urge greater support for Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. According to news reports, Mubarak asked Kuwait to lead a move for the Gulf states to open diplomatic ties with Israel as the peace process moves forward. In response, Kuwait’s main newspaper, Al-Seyassah, carried a signed editorial by its editor, praising Egypt for its “long-suffering patience” in sticking to its peace with Israel.
Egypt is emerging as a key factor in Israel’s plans as the implementation date approaches for Israel’s ostensibly unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. One of the main sticking points in Sharon’s disengagement plan is the future of the so-called Philadelphi Road, a strip cutting through the town of Rafah, which straddles the Egypt-Gaza border. According to the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, Egypt can keep only lightly armed police forces on its side of the border, limiting its ability to control the continuous digging of tunnels under the border by weapons smugglers. The Israeli army, for its part, has expressed fears that once its troops withdraw from the area, the smuggling of arms and explosives would continue and increase, bringing new and improved weapons into Gaza. Now Israel and Egypt say they have agreed on fortifying the Egyptian military presence — and in the process increasing Egypt’s role in guaranteeing Israeli security.
Indeed, the new optimism is based on the slow demise of one of the main features of Sharon’s Gaza-West Bank withdrawal plan — its unilateralism. After Yasser Arafat’s death, Israel no longer can claim it has “no partner” for negotiations, having long viewed Abbas as a possible partner. Egyptian involvement, together with unsigned but clearly bilateral understandings with the Palestinians, might change the picture completely — and with it Sharon’s chances of overcoming the obstacles from within his own government as the date of withdrawal draws closer.
The road is not yet clear, of course. Sharon still must overcome the obstacle of assembling a governing coalition that meets the approval of his Likud Party. His main hurdle is winning Likud approval to bring Shimon Peres’s Labor into his coalition, although he seems closer than ever to that goal, now that it’s either Labor or new elections. The next sticking point appears to be a growing insistence in Likud ranks that if Labor enters the government, it must be accompanied by the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, seen by many in Likud as balancing Labor’s secularism and liberalism. Shas, for its part, has yet to endorse disengagement, which Sharon has posed as a precondition for any party to enter his new coalition.
Also looming over Sharon’s head is growing pressure for an international conference on Middle East peace, which British Prime Minister Tony Blair wants to convene in London in January or February 2005, after Palestinian leadership elections. The conference is a clear bid by Blair to buff his image in Europe following his alliance with President Bush in Iraq. Europe, the moderate Arab states and the Palestinian Authority back it enthusiastically. America was chilly to the idea when Blair first raised it at the White House last month, but it won grudging endorsement following a trip to London by White House Middle East aide Elliott Abrams. Israel is deeply wary of a conference that leads to final-status talks, which Israel considers premature. British government told Ha’aretz this week that they had “no intention of quarreling with Israel” over the conference agenda.
If and when the sides do resume negotiations, real and vast differences are sure to emerge. Abbas was one of the staunchest opponents of even considering the offers made at the Camp David Summit in 2000. Only last week he declared that he would not give up the Palestinian right of return, even symbolically, a core Israeli demand. By the same token it is far from clear what Sharon has in mind as a comprehensive solution — though one of his closest confidants, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, repeated in a New York speech last week that the Gaza disengagement is intended as part of sweeping process leading to “painful concessions” and a viable Palestinian state.
Whatever the leaders’ real intentions, after four years of bloodshed, the signs of optimism — premature as they might yet prove to be — were refreshing for tired Palestinians and Israelis, clinging to even the faintest of hopes.