Abbas & Sharon: Common Interest, Different Agendas

February 8, 2005

Abbas & Sharon: Common Interest, Different Agendas
by Peter Hirschberg

JERUSALEM - Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon go into Tuesday's summit in Egypt with a strong common interest – to portray their long-awaited meeting as a success – but with very different agendas.

In many ways, the summit, hosted by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at the Red Sea port of Sharm el-Sheikh, is part of the diplomatic foreplay, a precursor to more substantive talks somewhere down the line.

On the agenda is the release of Palestinian prisoners, the return of West Bank towns and cities to Palestinian control, the removal of roadblocks in the Occupied Territories, and measures Israel wants Abbas to take against militant groups.

Sharon is happy to keep it that way. He wants the summit to focus on security issues and some confidence-building measures, nothing more. If he can portray it as a success, he hopes it will increase public support for his plan to withdraw from Gaza and douse opposition – especially inside his ruling Likud party – to the plan, which is supposed to be implemented in the summer.

He will utter platitudes about reviving the moribund U..S.-backed roadmap for peace, but he will be hoping he does not have to ever fully implement the blueprint, which calls for the creation of an independent Palestinian state. He wants to move toward implementation of his plan to withdraw from Gaza without having to discuss any of the final status issues at the core of the conflict, such as the future borders of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

Sharon is also happy that the Americans will not be in Sharm. He is worried that if they do play a mediating role, he will be under pressure to offer more concessions to the Palestinians than he would like. He knows that Abbas has been chalking up points in the United States as a result of a series of moves, including the deployment of his security forces in Gaza to stop rocket fire into Israel and the toning down of anti-Israel incitement on Palestinian television.

Asked Sunday during her visit to Israel whether the United States, the major powerbroker in the region, would not be conspicuous by its absence at Sharm, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice replied that it was positive "when the parties in the region take these steps on their own."

Against the backdrop of growing calm, Rice added that there was now a chance of getting "back onto the roadmap." Sharon's plan to withdraw from Gaza, she said, was "one of the things that will help us get back onto the roadmap."

Sharon will have been listening with some concern. He has never been enthusiastic about the roadmap. He was quoted last week as saying that Israel would not implement any steps in the roadmap until "the Palestinians stop terror attacks, dismantle the [militant] infrastructures and carry out government reforms."

By contrast, Rice's comments on the roadmap will have encouraged Abbas, who has already said he wants the Gaza pullout to become part of the revival of the roadmap and of an effort to return to talks about final status issues. Until that happens, though, he will want to win some time and chalk up some credit with his people. To do that, he must extract concessions from his Israeli counterpart.

One of the most significant issues for Abbas is the release of Palestinian prisoners, who are viewed as the vanguard of the Palestinian liberation struggle and as heroes on the streets of Gaza and the West Bank. Procuring the release of as many as possible of the 8,000 security prisoners now in Israeli jails will be vital to his chances of establishing himself as Yasser Arafat's successor.

The prisoner issue had thrown a cloud over the summit, with the Palestinians unhappy over Israel's announcement that it was ready to release a total of 900 prisoners. The Palestinians wanted a higher number to be freed and insisted that members of the Islamic opposition groups – Hamas and Islamic Jihad – be among those released.

Abbas also wants some of the long-serving prisoners who were involved in attacks in which Israelis were killed prior to the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, to go free.

For Israelis, the prisoner issue is also an emotive one. The release of those prisoners who have killed – prisoners "with blood on their hands," as they are known in Israel – is unthinkable for many in the Jewish state.

The mechanism agreed upon by the two sides over the weekend to temporarily defuse the prisoner issue ahead of the summit was the creation of a joint committee to discuss releases in the future. Abbas, though, will have to hope Sharon is more generous when it comes to future releases, otherwise his people – and the prisoners themselves, some of whom have been helping him persuade militant groups to agree to a ceasefire – will begin to question his ability to further their cause.

After the summit, he will nevertheless brandish Israel's agreement to release 900 prisoners, as well as the expected withdrawal of Israeli troops from West Bank cities, as major achievements.

Prof. Ali Jerbawi from the political science department at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank believes these concessions, along with the likely easing of travel restrictions in the territories, are likely to earn Abbas about "three to six months" grace with his people.

"At the moment what we are talking about is returning to the situation on the eve of September 28, 2000 [when the Palestinian Intifadah uprising erupted]," Jerbawi told IPS. "We are talking about the removal of road blocks, the release of detainees, the end of assassinations."

Jerbawi refers to the Sharm summit as being part of the "pre-negotiation" phase – a step before the sides return to final status negotiations. He is not sure, though, that will happen: Sharon's strategy, he believes, is to "preoccupy the Palestinians and the world with his Gaza plan and pay only lip service to the roadmap," but not to return to substantive talks.

Nevertheless, the significance of the Sharm summit should not be underestimated. Both sides are likely to declare a mutual, unilateral ceasefire, with the Palestinians agreeing to halt attacks on Israelis and the Israelis agreeing to halt military operations in the West Bank and Gaza, except for those cases considered to be "ticking bombs."

It will also provide the highest-level meeting between the sides since Abbas and Sharon met in Jordan in mid-2003. The parties at the Sharm summit, as well as the Americans who will be watching from the sidelines, will be hoping the outcome is more fruitful than that abortive meeting; two months later Abbas had resigned and the violence returned.

(Inter Press Service)

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