- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 4, 2003

In an event that may be remembered as a turning point in the search for Middle East peace, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas took a number of major steps forward during yesterday’s historic peace summit in Aqaba, Jordan. The two leaders went beyond what they have previously said in describing concrete steps they are prepared to take in order to achieve peace. Mr. Sharon said that Israel supports President Bush’s vision of two independent states, one Israeli and one Palestinian, living side-by-side in peace. The Israeli leader — until recently his country’s best-known advocate of territorial expansion — pledged to immediately remove settlement outposts that were established without government approval. Also, in remarks that would be revolutionary for any Likud Party politician — and are even more so in Mr. Sharon’s case — he said his government understands the importance of “territorial contiguity” for an independent state of Palestine, a key demand from the Arab side.

Less than three years ago, Prime Minister Ehud Barak agreed to then-President Clinton’s proposal to create such a state, which would have comprised 97 percent of the West Bank. But Yasser Arafat rejected the offer and embarked on a terror war. Israeli settler organizations like the Yesha Council, once Mr. Sharon’s core political constituency, are now furious with the prime minister, who they believe has sold them out.

Mr. Abbas in essence replaced Mr. Arafat as the top Palestinian negotiator after Mr. Bush concluded last year that Mr. Arafat would never agree to end the conflict with Israel. A key question is whether the prime minister will rein in Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade and the other terrorist groups which continue to operate against Israel. Judging from his remarks following yesterday’s meeting with Mr. Sharon, the Palestinian leader is prepared to do precisely that. Mr. Abbas promised to “act vigorously,” using Palestinian security forces where necessary. Using arguably the toughest language by any Palestinian leader since the Oslo I agreement was signed nearly 10 years ago to describe the violent rejectionist element, Mr. Abbas declared that “the armed intifada must end” and called for ending attacks on Israelis “wherever they may be.” The prime minister’s call for an end to violence was summarily rejected by Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

To be sure, skeptics will point out that diplomats have tried to bring peace to this region for generations. All too often, would-be peacemakers pay with their lives — Jordan’s King Abdullah I was assassinated in 1951 and Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat 30 years later, and a Jewish extremist assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

But a number of things augur better for this round of Mideast diplomacy. First, as Henry Kissinger points out, negotiators now have decades of unsuccessful negotiating ventures to learn from. Second, the war in Iraq has unquestionably increased American leverage. And the recent al Qaeda strikes in Saudi Arabia may be creating a new dynamic in the Arab world by making it clear to Arab governments that the terrorists can’t be bought off. This calculation of national security may have been tipped in the Saudi (and perhaps Egyptian) governmental leaders’ minds from acquiescence to terrorism to active opposition. As always, any discussion of peace in the Middle East must be kept in the subjunctive.

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