Seeing George W. Bush joined by Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas in Aqaba discussing the need to put an end to terror and violence and moving toward peace, could not but remind one of the scene on the White House lawn, 24 years ago, when Jimmy Carter, Menachem Begin, and Anwar Sadat sealed the Israel-Egypt peace agreement with a three-way handshake.
But of course, another more recent handshake on the White House lawn springs to mind - Bill Clinton, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat - the deal that led to such disastrous results.
But let's leave memory lane and concentrate on the present. Israelis can be pleased that after close to three years of Palestinian terror that has taken a toll of almost 800 Israelis, Arafat has been apparently sidelined, and the recently elected Palestinian prime minister talks of the need to put an end to terror. The concessions that the Israeli prime minister had to make in response will probably not seem excessive to most Israelis - a commitment to remove illegal settlements - renamed "unauthorized outposts" for the occasion. These outposts that were never authorized by the Israeli government should not have been put up in the first place, unless they were intended to be the "proverbial goat" whose removal would bring about sighs of relief all round. There is no doubt that Sharon can implement his commitment (he has removed settlements in the past). As to Abbas' ability to end Palestinian terror, the jury is still out and will probably not be heard from for some time.
Does that mean that for Israel it is so far so good? Only if we don't bother to read the fine print in the "Road Map for Peace in the Middle East," whose acceptance by the Israeli government was the prelude to the Aqaba meeting. The road map includes the following statement: "The [negotiated] settlement will resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict and end the occupation that began in 1967, based on the Madrid Conference, the principles of land for peace, UN Resolutions 242, 338, and 1397, agreements previously reached by the parties, and the initiative of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah - endorsed by the Beirut Arab League Summit - calling for acceptance of Israel as a neighbor living in peace and security, in the context of a comprehensive settlement."
The Saudi initiative, renamed the "The Arab Peace Initiative" was adopted at the Beirut Arab League Summit in March 2002. It calls for "full Israeli withdrawal from all the territories occupied since 1967, including the Syrian Golan Heights to the June 4, 1967 lines, achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194 - [refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date] - and the acceptance of the establishment of a sovereign independent Palestinian state on the Palestinian territories occupied since June 4, 1967 in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital."
In other words the road map endorses an Israeli withdrawal to the June 1967 borders and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their "homes" in Israel. There is little doubt that the Sharon government and the majority of Israel's citizens do not agree to these conditions. The government's acceptance of the road map was probably based on the assumption that the ambiguities in the text were essentially "constructive" in nature, allowing all parties to get started down the road at this time.
Are they liable to come back to haunt us if the process proceeds? Some ministers may have preferred crossing that bridge when and if we come to it, rather than confronting President Bush at this time. Others may have felt sufficiently certain of the Palestinian inability to meet its commitments, so that Israeli agreement would seem to turn into a net gain as time went by. But such far reaching commitments by the Israeli government should not be taken lightly.
The "reservations" to the road map that the government added do not really change the facts of the matter. Even if the road map in due time gets buried under Middle East sandstorms and earthquakes, the Israeli concessions included in it and approved by the Israeli government - just like the concessions offered by the Barak government at Camp David - will have a cumulative negative effect on Israel's position in the years to come.
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