Jewish World Review Feb. 9, 2005 / 30 Shevat, 5765
At Sharm el Sheik II, symbols were right this time
If a picture is worth a thousand words, the image of Palestinian
leader Mahmoud Abbas reaching across the table to clasp hands with Israeli
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon speaks volumes. Abbas looked almost
professorial, with his horn-rimmed glasses and conservative business suit
and tie, in stark contrast to his predecessor, Yasser Arafat. Gone were
Arafat's trademark stubble, desert fatigues and keffiyeh, the checkered Arab
headscarf that became all the rage among campus leftists a few years ago.
And the sartorial symbolism is more than superficial.
Arafat's garb reminded everyone that he was more comfortable
wielding an AK-47 than he was signing peace agreements. No matter what
Arafat said with Western cameras rolling or in the presence of Bill
Clinton who hosted Arafat 13 times, more often than any other foreign
visitor to the White House during Clinton's eight years in office Arafat
remained a street-fighting thug to his last gasp. With Arafat dead and
Palestinians allowed to pick their own leader, which they did just weeks ago
when they elected Abbas, perhaps peace is finally possible.
This week's meeting in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt is the first
between the Israeli head of state and the leader of the Palestinian people
in nearly five years. During most of that time, the Intifada, the
Palestinian uprising which has killed more than 4,000 Israelis and
Palestinians over the last four years, made it impossible for any talk of
peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Now, Abbas has pledged to "cease
all acts of violence against all Israelis everywhere," while Sharon has
promised in return to "cease all its military activity against all
Palestinians everywhere." It was the kind of all-encompassing commitment on
both sides unimaginable in the Arafat era.
Anyone who watched the televised summit, hosted by Egyptian
President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah II of Jordan, immediately grasped
the difference between this and previous meetings of the two parties when
Arafat was at the helm. In October 2000, Arafat met at Sharm el Sheik with
then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. But President Bill Clinton ran the
show during that round of talks, with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan
present to give his imprimatur to the meeting. Nothing positive happened at
the 2000 confab, despite Clinton's involvement. As The New York Times
reported at the time, when the talks ended "all [Clinton] could do was read
an agreement that neither Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister, nor Yasser
Arafat, the Palestinian leader, was willing to sign, to read aloud or to
answer questions about."
But this week's summit seemed different. Of course the players
had changed on both sides of the table. Not only was Arafat gone, but the
hard-liner Sharon had replaced the moderate Barak yet it is Sharon who
has pledged unilaterally to withdraw settlements from Gaza and parts of the
West Bank. And the United States, wisely, decided to stay away and let the
parties talk directly.
Still, it is too early to declare Sharm el Sheik II an
unqualified success. The symbols were right down to the flying of the
Israeli flag, something missing at the 2000 Sharm el Sheik meetings.
However, symbols only go so far. Abbas has the more difficult task and the
most to prove. Sharon has announced that Israel will pull back its troops
from Bethlehem, Jericho and Ramallah, and lift roadblocks that make it
difficult for Palestinians to travel to jobs. The Israeli public will back
Sharon, so long as a new wave of violence does not ensue.
But Abbas must shut down the terrorists who operate within his
territory especially Hamas. The terrorist organization has already said
it is not bound to honor the truce declared Tuesday, which a Hamas spokesman
described as a unilateral declaration by the Palestinian Authority. If Abbas
fails to crack down on the terrorists, all the earnest words and brave
symbolism in the world won't bring peace to this troubled
JWR contributor Linda Chavez is President of the Center for Equal Opportunity. Her latest book is "Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)