Although President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon come from two different and contradicting schools of political thought and practice, they now find themselves in a position in which they need each other.
Sharon, who has always been against the kind of peace process that Abu Mazen has been advocating for the last 20 years, is approaching election year. It is of overriding concern to him that he show that his unilateral withdrawal from Gaza is making a positive difference to Israelis. This is an especially acute need, since for the sake of the Gaza disengagement Sharon alienated some of his traditional right wing support, without necessarily getting enough support in return from his traditional left wing opponents.
Abu Mazen, on the other hand, was elected on the premise that a political approach will yield greater reward for the Palestinian people than violent confrontations. For that purpose, Abu Mazen has also given up some of the traditional social and political bases of Fateh’s power on the Palestinian scene. He now needs results.
The international atmosphere, meanwhile, seems conducive to a different kind of process from previous ones. The outside world, especially the countries that have invested both politically and financially in resolving this conflict, appears to feel that the two leaderships are facing serious internal difficulties but that the previous excuses for avoiding their obligations no longer exist. In Palestine, there is a viable and serious partner that has successfully contributed to the security situation by fulfilling a major requirement, i.e., ending, to an almost full extent, Palestinian violence against Israelis in spite of continuing Israeli practices in violation of international law. In Israel, the successful implementation of the unilateral disengagement from Gaza has brought the Israeli leadership face to face with its further obligations under the roadmap.
The most important indication of a successful summit would be a joint declaration stating the intention by the two sides to move from the current unilateral approach into bilateral and peaceful negotiations on the basis of the roadmap. The two parties should reiterate their commitment to the Sharm Al Sheikh understandings, i.e., to end the violence and end collective punishments against Palestinians including the sweeping arrest campaigns, assassinations, house demolitions and restrictions on movement.
The main challenge that will then face the Israeli prime minister is to stop the policy of settlement expansion, including in East Jerusalem. The most important challenge for the Palestinian president will be to incorporate all the opposition factions as well as the militias of the ruling party, Fateh, within the legal system through democratic elections. Such elections will represent a commitment by these groups to end the unlawful use of arms and instead practice politics through legitimate parliamentary means.
An undertaking to return to bilateral negotiations will mark a historic turning point. The two leaders will need time, political will and international support to undertake their mission. But this is what leadership is about, and the first step has to be to create a spirit of partnership and joint interest by committing to mutual recognition and respect.
There are already high expectations for this summit, since it comes after Israeli success with disengagement and Palestinian success in maintaining a ceasefire. Both peoples, as well as the international community, will be looking for strategic results that go beyond immediate needs, however important these are.