JERUSALEM—Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas will arrive in Egypt for a summit meeting Tuesday at one of those rare moments in the more than half-century Israeli-Palestinian conflict—when leaders of the two peoples just may be able to help each other out.
They're not about to settle the underlying conflict—in which Israelis want secure borders and Palestinians want a viable territory for a nation to call their own. But the two leaders could end up exchanging small gifts that nudge Israelis and Palestinians in the direction of peace and away from violence.
More than anything, it's the death of longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in late November that created this possibility. Sharon and Arafat hated each other and were not about to exchange favors.
Sharon sees Abbas as a reasonable man, although when he tried to deal with Abbas during Abbas' brief tenure as Palestinian prime minister in 2003, Arafat prevented that by denying Abbas any real authority.
Abbas has called for an end to attacks on Israel by Palestinian militant groups, but unlike Arafat, whose authority was unquestioned, Abbas is politically weak. On Jan. 9 he won a decisive election as head of the Palestinian Authority. But he is still trying to assert authority over Palestinian security forces, make good on promises to root out corruption and nurture economic growth, and ultimately bring unruly militant groups under his control.
To do all that, he needs help from Sharon.
"I think the Palestinian side needs a big boost from the Israeli side in order to help us accommodate a very tense situation," said a top Abbas aide, Mohammed Shtayeh. "Cosmetic steps here and there are going to be looked at as insignificant."
A sweeping prisoner release remains the burning issue for the Palestinians. While it's unlikely Sharon could or would release all of the approximately 8,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, he could release 237 prisoners jailed before the 1993 Oslo Accords that established the Palestinian Authority were signed, as well as other old or sickly prisoners who've served long terms.
Sharon also could scale back some of the Israeli army checkpoints and patrols in the West Bank, a move that would ease restraints on Palestinian life and help spur the economy.
Sharon has one thing in common with Abbas. He, too, is a weak leader. His coalition government recently collapsed over his plans to pull Israeli troops and 7,500 Jewish settlers out of the predominantly Palestinian Gaza Strip. In order to hold together his new government and carry out the withdrawal, Sharon needs Abbas to enforce a cease-fire that would halt militant attacks on Israelis.
The Jewish settlements in Gaza may ultimately be a liability for Israel, difficult and costly to defend. In exchange for Gaza, Sharon is hoping to strengthen Israel's hold on the West Bank, a bigger prize with a Biblical history and more than 230,000 Jewish settlers.
His plan to evacuate the Gaza Strip by this summer impressed President Bush so much that Bush agreed to dismiss as unrealistic long-standing Palestinian demands that several million refugees be allowed to return to Israel and that major Jewish settlements on the West Bank be dismantled.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak also has signed off on the disengagement plan. Sharon hopes to use the summit to pressure Mubarak to deliver on his promise to deploy 750 soldiers along the Egyptian-Gazan border to cut off militants' weapon supply routes.
That would help the prime minister win over critics within his Likud party and the Ultra-Orthodox Shas faction, who are pushing for any Gaza withdrawal to happen only through negotiations that garner concessions from the Palestinians.
Shared political weakness, in short, is the basis for a deal that could lead Sharon and Abbas to declare a cease-fire Tuesday at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik.
Whether a cease-fire would hold is uncertain, but any gesture toward peace would be welcome to most Israelis and Palestinians, who have been worn down by a seemingly endless cycle of suicide bombings and missile attacks. Israeli newspapers on Thursday heralded the announcement of the summit as "the end of the intifada," or Palestinian uprising, which has claimed nearly 5,000 lives, most of them Palestinian.
As the politician who helped spark the intifada by visiting Jerusalem's holy site revered by both Muslims and Jews, Sharon could repair his image internationally and become a hero to Israelis.
Abbas, too, must show that he can stand before the world stage as Arafat's legitimate successor if he's to be able to consolidate his power base at home.
The summit's participants want to help in that effort to ensure that the Palestinian militants don't gain power over Palestinian affairs, said Hillel Frisch, a senior researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center and a political scientist at Bar Ilan University in Israel.
"All these moves are not really aimed at a diplomatic breakthrough. They're really aimed at propping up Abu Mazen," Hillel said, using Abbas' nickname.
And Israel isn't ready to talk about a final settlement.
"Clearly, security must be in place before you get to negotiations," said Dore Gold, a Sharon adviser. "Israel will not return to the situation that existed in 2001 when it was holding final status talks while its cities were attacked by suicide bombers."
And that may define the limits of the summit.
If the Israelis and Palestinians can maintain an appearance of improved relations, its benefits could ripple to other nations.
The United States, mired in its war with insurgents in Iraq, and summit host Egypt could see their standing in the Arab world bolstered by helping the Palestinians end their conflict and win concessions from the Israelis.
Egypt is expected to announce that its ambassador will return to Tel Aviv. Egypt recalled its ambassador in 2000 in response to the harshness of Israeli military actions against the Palestinian uprising.
Full negotiations for a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians will have to await another day.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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