Political caution, security generosity

Some 19 months before last week’s Sharm al-Sheikh meeting, in late June 2003, a somewhat similar summit meeting designed to launch an Israeli-Palestinian stabilization and peace process was held in Aqaba, Jordan. It proved abortive; the roadmap that it launched went nowhere, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas soon resigned, and the violence resumed after a brief and partial ceasefire.

Last week’s meeting at Sharm al-Sheikh has a better chance of success than the June 2003 meeting, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, Yasser Arafat is no longer around to sabotage Abbas’ efforts. It is increasingly obvious that Arafat was indeed a major obstacle to progress. Secondly, in the interim between the two meetings Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon launched the disengagement plan.

Disengagement, for all its drawbacks, constitutes a positive initiative around which the parties can organize a ceasefire and confidence-building efforts. Both Abbas and Sharon appear to have drawn some pragmatic lessons from the failure of Aqaba.

Further, Egypt, which hosted Sharm, was not even invited to Aqaba. In the course of the past year Egyptian President Husni Mubarak has taken the initiative for Egypt to play a significant role in effecting disengagement and a ceasefire. His motivation may be related more to Washington and the Egyptian economy than compassion for his neighbors, but his contribution is positive.

On the other hand, the United States, which convened Aqaba in order to launch the roadmap process, was absent from Sharm. Paradoxically, this also constituted a positive contribution. The American effort at Aqaba was half-hearted; President Bush, increasingly preoccupied with the insurrection in Iraq, never followed up with serious American involvement. In the present case, Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice apparently understand that the current status of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires mainly security and reform measures, and is not ripe for a roadmap-based political process. Hence Rice avoided Sharm in order not to inadvertently send a deceptive political message, and sufficed with the appointment of Lt. General William Ward to look after security issues.

This points the way forward. If Israelis and Palestinians are to succeed in the immediate aftermath of Sharm, and Americans and Egyptians are to provide effective support, we must all concentrate on a measured confidence-building process that focuses on mutual security, Palestinian reform, and cooperation to make disengagement work. We must postpone any move toward renewing a peace process. In other words, we must work on those aspects of roadmap phase I that both sides can handle, plus disengagement, and avoid getting into phases II or III.

At the Sharm al-Sheikh meeting even Sharon felt obliged to pay lip service to the roadmap and to offer a political vision of sorts for the future. But he is hardly suspected of actively seeking final status negotiations with Abbas. Nor will the Israeli public–which wants a peace process but doubts its feasibility–hurry him. The Palestinian president, on the other hand, is under far greater pressure from his constituency to get back to peace negotiations. But the time is not ripe, and Abbas’ views on the right of return mean that a peace process negotiated by him will fail once again. To push a reluctant Sharon and a hard-line Abbas into peace negotiations prematurely is to guarantee another disastrous failure and to jeopardize the disengagement process that Sharon is ready to carry out.

Hence, assuming Abbas succeeds in improving the security situation on the ground, and even if his method of dealing with Hamas focuses on cooptation rather than the roadmap-prescribed confrontation, Israel must compensate him generously in security-related areas like prisoner release, while the US and UK lead an international effort to provide material incentives. In these areas generosity is warranted, because if Abbas fails the alternatives are not encouraging.

If Sharm provides the momentum for a successful effort by both sides in the course of the coming 6-9 months–to disengage, end the violence, hold a series of Palestinian elections and carry out vital internal Palestinian reforms–then the stage could be set for a more substantive process to begin sometime in 2006.