It's true that both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon have met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice—albeit separately. It's also true that Rice invited both Abbas and Sharon to meet with Bush in Washington—though again, separately. And yes, Abbas and Sharon just met at a summit in Egypt where they made, you guessed it, separate statements affirming steps towards a cease-fire. But while Washington, Israel, Palestine, and the world press remain optimistic about the future of Palestinian and Israeli relations, the window of opportunity to achieve lasting peace may not stay open for long.
In many ways great steps really are being made towards a substantial peace effort. Just this week, Rice delivered a strong message to Sharon, demanding that the Israelis live up to their obligations regarding the removal of Israeli settlements in the Gaza strip. She also announced the appointment of a "senior security coordinator" to the region. Meanwhile, the U.S. pledged aid to Palestine in order to improve infrastructure there, as well as to equip and help Palestinians build their forces. And yet, despite these encouraging steps, a number of challenges still remain.
For starters, the budding cease-fire is still precarious. Following the summit in Egypt, both Abbas and Sharon claimed to have reached an agreement that all acts of violence and military activity against each other will cease. Additionally, according to one Palestinian negotiator, Sharon has arranged to withdraw Israeli troops from Jericho and four West Bank other towns over the next three weeks. This is a pre-emptive step towards a peace process, though Sharon continued to put the burden almost entirely on the Palestinians, qualifying the agreement by saying, "This is a very fragile opportunity, that the extremists will want to exploit... [I]f new change does emerge on the Palestinian side, the disengagement can bring hope and become the new starting point for a coordinated, successful process." He went on to speak in general terms of peace and sacrifice without addressing crucial Israeli responsibilities such as the partition wall that continues to be constructed on contested territory.
Abbas, on the other hand, was more direct in detailing the concrete issues that have yet to be hammered out: "We have differences on several issues, which may include settlements, prisoner releases, the wall, the closure of Jerusalem institutions and other issues. We shall not be able to settle all the issues today, but our stand on them remains firm." He further alluded to a move to disarm the various Palestinian militant groups, calling for "one authority that is the only party allowed to carry weapons." In other words, Abbas' government would have a monopoly of power. This many not sit well with groups like Hamas, and it remains to be seen whether Abbas can actually carry out his resolution. It is a unique time in history, a time in which a Palestinian president has temporarily wagered a peace with Palestinian militant groups (many of whom have the same goal as the Roadmap for Peace: a two-state solution). But groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade still consider their agreement with Abbas tenuous and short-term, and will only wait so long to see some concrete reciprocation from Israel. A Hamas representative responded to the announced ceasefire as "not binding" on its members and referred to Abbas' statements today as a "unilateral stand…not the result of the outcome of intra-Palestinian dialogue."
The fragile ceasefire between Sharon and Abbas, however, is threatened not only by Palestinian militants, but also by internal Israeli factional disputes how far the cease-fire should be reciprocated. As Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom declared, "A cease-fire is a ticking bomb that will blow up in our faces." Following the summit in Egypt, another Israeli official again qualified the terms under which the blanket cease-fire would occur, stating, "We will announce a halt to military operations on the condition there is an end to terrorism and violence." Armed Palestinian groups feel much the same way. It may come down to who blinks first. Both Abbas and Sharon would do well to rein in opposition within their countries by making firmer statements and more permanent agreements with dissenting factions. Hamas has already revealed its antagonism towards U.S. involvement in the proceedings. As one Hamas communiqué puts it, "The appointment of an American security coordinator to reform the Palestinian security services is not merely an intervention into internal Palestinian affairs, but also represent[s] ... a new attempt to push the Palestinian security services toward confronting the Palestinian resistance."
It will therefore be important to keep an eye on the U.S. role in all this. For her part, Rice has outlined security strategies that closely resemble efforts during the early years of the Bush administration when the CIA worked with security forces in both Israel and Palestine. After Israeli relations with Arafat plummeted in late 2002, however, violence erupted between the two sides.
It will also be crucial to follow Abbas' interactions with militant groups like Hamas in the coming days. Without their tolerance and patience, the peace efforts will crumble. So far, the only reason they appear to be tolerating negotiations with Israel is in order to gain a political presence in the emerging Palestinian government. Yet they still have no plans to consider disarmament, even if they come to power via the ballot box. Likewise, without concrete steps on the part of Israel to back out of territories as agreed, as well as to release agreed-upon Palestinian prisoners and to stop building the wall, Hamas will undoubtedly begin its campaign again—delivering a severe blow to the newly-emerging Palestinian democracy and the fragile peace efforts cautiously underway.