- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 8, 2005

SHARM EL SHEIK, Egypt — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas declared a mutual truce yesterday in the daily bloodshed that has plagued their peoples for more than four years, forging the brightest outlook for their relationship since the outbreak of hostilities in the fall of 2000.

In a four-way summit hosted by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian Authority president pledged in separate speeches to observe a blanket moratorium on attacks. Egypt and Jordan announced they would send ambassadors back to Israel after a four-year absence.

The White House hailed the day’s proceedings.

“We commend the strong leadership of President Abbas, Prime Minister Sharon, President Mubarak and King Abdullah,” spokesman Scott McClellan said on Air Force One, while en route with President Bush to Detroit. King Abdullah II is the monarch of Jordan.

For Mr. Sharon, the commitment amounts to halting the Israeli army’s war against militant Palestinians. For Mr. Abbas, it means taking responsibility to halt Palestinian attacks, an Israeli demand that was ignored by his predecessor, the late Yasser Arafat.

“Today in my meeting with Chairman Abbas, we agreed that all Palestinians will stop all acts of violence against all Israelis everywhere, and in parallel, Israel will cease all its military activity against Palestinians anywhere,” Mr. Sharon said.

“We hope that today we are starting a new period of tranquility and hope.”

Against the backdrop of the shimmering sea of this resort city, Israeli and Palestinian leaders shook hands in public, a gesture of reconciliation absent from the relationship since the ill-fated Camp David peace talks in 2000.

The leaders yesterday focused on the opportunity for rapprochement and downplayed how much new bitterness has seeped into Israeli-Palestinian relations in the past four years.

Mr. Abbas noted that the sides are still far apart on disagreements over the release of Palestinian prisoners, Israel’s West Bank separation barrier, and the status of Jerusalem.

But he said the summit should be seen as the resumption of collaboration between the two sides to resolve their differences peacefully.

“What we agreed upon is a beginning to bridge the gap,” he said. “We want to replace the language of bullets.”

Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said that more pressure will be brought to bear on militants from Hamas and Mr. Abbas’ own Fatah party to observe the cessation of hostilities.

Mr. Shaath added that he plans to visit Syria in an effort to speak to Hamas’ leadership in Damascus as well as government officials there about the Palestinians’ commitment to the cease-fire. He also plans to visit Lebanon and Saudi Arabia to brief leaders on the summit.

“From now on, any violation of the truce will be a violation of the national commitment and will have to be dealt with as such,” he said.

Mr. Sharon mentioned Israel’s commitment to withdraw from Palestinian cities in the West Bank and release hundreds of Palestinian detainees, and said he would be willing to coordinate with the Palestinians on his initial plan to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

“We must move forward cautiously,” Mr. Sharon said. “This is a very fragile opportunity that the extremists will want to exploit. They want to close the window of opportunity for us and allow our two peoples to drown in their blood. … If we do not act now, they may be successful.”

In the first reported violation of the truce, Palestinians shot at a car near a West Bank Jewish settlement after nightfall and fired and threw firebombs at soldiers who came to investigate. No one was hurt.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, affiliated with Mr. Abbas’ Fatah movement, claimed responsibility.

Asked whether Hamas would continue attacks against Israel, the group’s representative in Lebanon, Osama Hamdan, replied: “Our decision depends on the achievement of a substantial change [in Israel’s position] to meet Palestinian demands and conditions.”

Mr. Hamdan said for a truce to be successful, Israel must release Palestinian prisoners and make a clear commitment to “halt all kinds of aggression against the Palestinian people.” He contended those conditions were not met.

Across the world, the cease-fire breakthrough raised cautious hope.

In Europe, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hailed what she called a new will for peace in the region, but said the Palestinians now must work strenuously to prevent violence.

Mr. Bush provided a boost of momentum on the summit’s eve by inviting both sides to separate talks at the White House this spring.

In London, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw pledged Britain would do all it could to help, but noted there had been “rather too many false dawns” in the long-running conflict.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said in Berlin that “the renewed U.S. engagement is of central significance.”

The positive atmosphere in the Abbas-Sharon meeting was punctuated by friendly blackslapping, and the two leaders even discussed what would be the first-ever state visit by an Israeli leader to the Palestinian city of Ramallah, said Ra’anan Gissin, a spokesman for the prime minister.

It remains to be seen how well Israelis and Palestinians can advance their blossoming relationship. Mr. Abbas called for “quick progress,” and his associates predicted intensive talks, while Mr. Sharon said “we must move forward cautiously.”

Indeed, although the Palestinians are pushing for a resumption of negotiations on a permanent peace settlement, Israelis want to first confirm that the cessation in hostilities holds.

“We must not put the horse before the carriage,” said Gideon Meir, deputy director-general of the Foreign Ministry for communications. “We have to make sure that things on the ground will not deteriorate and the security of Israel will be kept. This is the main goal of ours in the first stage.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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