A summit that's a start
The four-way summit in Sharm el-Sheikh was not a summit to summarize but a summit to start, and as such it was definitely a success story, particularly against the background of more than four years of deadly intifada.
The four-way summit in Sharm el-Sheikh was not a summit to summarize but a summit to start, and as such it was definitely a success story, particularly against the background of more than four years of deadly intifada. The success was mostly a result of it being well-prepared. This was not a negotiations conference, but one of meetings, statements of political intent and summations on a number of issues that were previously discussed by Israeli and Palestinian representatives. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon noted the example of the upcoming release of Palestinian prisoners, an issue of supreme importance for the Palestinian public; and spokesmen from both sides reported on Israeli preparations for withdrawals from West Bank cities as well as other steps, such as easing freedom of movement in the territories and permission to resume construction of a deep water port in Gaza.
The Israeli attitude toward these steps - as if they are only gestures toward the Palestinians - is insufficient. The relationship between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is based on interests, not favors. Thus, improving the standard of living in the territories is not only a Palestinian interest, but to a large extent is also an Israeli interest, as is strengthening Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, by releasing prisoners.
The most important statement made at the summit referred to the cessation of violence. It was the first time that the leaders of the two sides, Sharon and Abbas, clearly and firmly declared an end to the hostility and violence against Israelis and Palestinians everywhere.
In recent years there may have been occasional talk about a cease-fire and calm, but the change this time is that the declarations were accompanied by what is known as a "political horizon."
The efforts made over the last four years to deal only with security issues failed. The success of the Sharm el-Sheikh summit was that this time the security issues were linked to a relatively clear political track - the disengagement plan of the Sharon government, which one way or another will lead to the implementation of the political road map. With varying emphases, the three speakers at the end of the summit all mentioned the road map.
The Sharm el-Sheikh summit also opened the way, for the first time, for the Israeli disengagement plan no longer being unilateral, but to be accomplished in coordination and possibly in an agreement between Israel and the PA. There is no doubt that a plan achieved through an agreement between the sides is preferable to one that is implemented utterly unilaterally. Such coordination will no doubt be one of the main achievements that both sides can chalk up to their credit.
The conference was a small and initial step toward the discussions about the well-known, weighty issues: borders, Jerusalem, settlements and refugees. It should be remembered that the peace process that began at the Madrid Conference and in the Oslo agreements collapsed over those issues. The participants at the Sharm conference were well aware of that. The summit thus signaled good intentions and readiness for a good start, but as much as it was a good start, it remains but a start.