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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

June 01, 2003

Hopes for peace


The Economist is optimistic about the planned meeting of Palestinians and Israeli with Bush
THE prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians flicker more brightly. On Friday May 30th both sides issued cautious but optimistic statements following a meeting in Jerusalem between the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, and the new head of the Palestinian government, Mahmoud Abbas. Israel announced some goodwill gestures, including plans to release some Palestinian prisoners. But the two sides failed to agree on the terms for an Israeli troop pullback in the West Bank and Gaza. This is one of the key elements of the American-backed “road map”, which is designed to lead to a final settlement ending more than 30 months of violence. President George Bush will now try to provide the necessary impetus by taking a direct role in the process. He will meet the two prime ministers in Jordan on June 4th. The way ahead remains politically dangerous. Middle East peace initiatives have come and gone before, despite lots of promising diplomacy.

The three-way summit with Mr Bush in the Jordanian city of Aqaba will follow a meeting the previous day between the American president and a number of Arab leaders at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik. With broad international blessing for the road map, both Mr Sharon and Mr Abbas (who is also known among his people as Abu Mazen) will be under strong pressure to show their determination to make the plan succeed. But both leaders also have their own constituencies to contend with.

The road map was drafted by America, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia. It proposes that an independent Palestinian state with “provisional borders” be created before the end of this year. By 2005, the state would come into being and be expected to live in peace alongside Israel. The first phase of the plan was supposed to have already begun: this involves Palestinians reforming their government and cracking down on terrorism; and the Israelis withdrawing their troops from Palestinian cities, ceasing to build new settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and dismantling those built since March 2001.

The appointment of Mr Abbas, a moderate who has publicly and repeatedly condemned terrorism, was the Palestinians’ first step towards meeting their side of the deal. But with militants launching a new wave of suicide attacks against Israel, the violence is far from being reined in. Mr Abbas says he hopes a ceasefire agreement can soon be reached with Hamas, one of the main militant groups. So far, Hamas is simply saying that it is “discussing the issue”. Israel and America want more than a ceasefire, and are demanding that the militants be disarmed and arrested. But the Palestinians say their own security forces are weak and without a ceasefire they could face a civil war.

To encourage Mr Sharon, America has said it will “fully and seriously” address Israel’s “real concerns” about the plan—without specifically responding to the 14 “reservations” which Israel has raised. In the face of criticism from hardliners, Mr Sharon has mounted a strong defence of his decision to accept the road map. He said that it would be both wrong and bad for Israel “to keep holding three-and-a-half million Palestinians under occupation, because that’s what it is, it’s occupation”. This infuriated the right wing of his Likud Party and came as somewhat of a surprise given how closely associated Mr Sharon has been with the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. That he was prepared to use the word “occupation” in reference to Israeli settlements, for the first time, is an encouraging sign. Whatever the hardliners think, Mr Sharon's comments reflect the opinions of most Israelis: a poll published on Friday by Maariv, a daily newspaper, showed 62% agreeing that the “occupation of the territories” should end.

If the current promising moves towards a deal prove fruitful, the peace dividend could be considerable, and not just in terms of ending the bloodshed. The intifada and Israel’s military response have inflicted great economic hardship on the Palestinians, and have also enfeebled the Israeli economy, so peace should bring renewed prosperity all round. All the more reason for the two leaders to try to ensure the glimmer of hope for peace does not fade, as it has done before.[more]