An examination of the Aqaba summit and the contacts that preceded it lead to two conclusions regarding Israeli-Palestinian talks in the future. First, with the absence of trust between the sides, American involvement is vital for the process to take place. Second, it appears that the political stability of the government in Jerusalem is more important than its partisan makeup or even its ministers' views.
The ceremony on the royal Jordanian beach justified, after the fact, all complaints heard over the past two years against U.S. President George W. Bush for keeping his hands off the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It has been clearly proved that only his personal involvement and the diplomatic campaign of coercion conducted by his assistants managed to extricate Ariel Sharon and Abu Mazen from the mutual accusation game. True, the peace process has not yet taken off significantly, and both sides have yet to face truly difficult decisions. But even the tiny step Sharon and Abu Mazen took together was made possible only thanks to the American guidance.
Sharon and his people claim that nothing new was said in Aqaba. On the verbal level, they are right. In the past, too, the prime minister spoke of a Palestinian state, territorial contiguity and the evacuation of illegal outposts. But the tone was completely different. Suddenly, a willingness to accept the road map and send the army to the hilltops of the West Bank to uproot the wildcat outposts was evident in Sharon. None of this would have happened if Bush had not taken the trouble to make it clear to his colleague in Jerusalem that this is not the time for derailing the process. The same goes for the Palestinian side. There can be no doubt that Abu Mazen would ever have been appointed prime minister without Washington's firm demand.
Bush has been careful not to re-enact the behavior of his predecessor, and has not appointed himself desk manager of the peace process as did Bill Clinton, who wasted his exalted position in dealings with Yasser Arafat. Bush used his power only when it appeared to him that the conditions had ripened, and he reaped a political achievement without too much effort. But if he makes do with a one-time visit, he will not attain anything in the Middle East. Since the end of the war in Iraq, the American administration made sure to keep a senior official stationed in the region and this presence has had a partially mitigating influence on the violence. After the summit, everyone went home, and John Wolf's team of supervisors has been held up. The wave of terror attacks and responses in recent days has proved that without their American babysitter, the parties revert to their violent habits.
Bush made an effort to strengthen the Israeli government. His support for Sharon in the election campaign was interpreted as an expression of ideological solidarity. But it is doubtful that the White House read the Likud's platform. As far as the American administration is concerned, the gamble on Sharon has led to a break of the political tie in Israel and created a dominant party - the Likud - as a message of coalition stability. The Americans abandoned the Labor Party, which they had fostered in the past. Their envoys no longer take the trouble to meet even with Shimon Peres.
The road map's endorsement by a right-wing government proved that politically, a narrow, but stable government is better than a paralyzed national unity government. It may be assumed that were Peres and company sitting in coveted cabinet seats, Likud leaders would be hiding behind them voting against the road map. While the decision would pass, it would be received by the public as a trick by the left. In the absence of Labor ministers, all those staking a claim on Likud leadership had to support the road map or abstain, thus providing the prime minister with the legitimacy essential for agreeing to a Palestinian state. Sharon is now forced to contend with political decisions on his own, without the flak jacket that Peres had provided him and without having anyone to blame for his rush to make concessions. The road Sharon took to Aqaba shows that he understands the responsibility of political isolation, but it also has a price: It may be assumed that Labor ministers would have tried to restrain him from carrying out the showy assassination attempt on Abdel Aziz Rantisi.
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