Warm and Fuzzy in Aqaba

Almost 36 years to the day after the start of the Arab-Israeli Six Day War, President Bush sought to “end the occupation that started in 1967” by bringing together the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers at the Red Sea Summit in Aqaba, Jordan. The president moved to kick-start the U.S.-endorsed roadmap for peace by declaring that “the Holy Land must be shared between a state of Palestine, and the State of Israel.” He commended Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas for promising “to work without compromise for a complete end of violence and terror” and made a point of noting–with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon within earshot–that “the issue of settlements must be addressed for peace to be achieved.”

Prime Minister Abbas re-iterated that the Palestinian Authority accepted the roadmap “without any reservations.” More importantly, he unequivocally denounced and renounced “terrorism and violence against Israelis wherever they might be.” These words are a necessary but insufficient obligation on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. Necessary because it is critical for any future peace that the PA’s commitment to do everything in its power to end the tragically misguided Palestinian attacks against Israeli civilians be clearly articulated. Insufficient because words alone won’t cut it. Absent an agreement by the Palestinian militants to lay down their arms, Abbas is expected to disarm them by force, raising the ugly specter of a bloody Palestinian civil war.

While it inevitably has its shortcomings, one of the positive aspects of the roadmap is its requirement for parallel and reciprocal actions to be taken by the Israelis and Palestinians, and it is in this regard that Ariel Sharon’s performance at Aqaba came up short, less for what he said than for what he didn’t say. Sharon agreed to “immediately begin to remove unauthorized outposts” and asserted that Israel is “a society governed by the rule of law.” The problem is that Sharon’s reference is to the rule of Israeli law, not international law, for which Israel demonstrates disdainful contempt, at least as it applies to Israel’s obligations in the occupied territories. This was clearly manifested by Sharon’s studied omission of the word ‘settlements’ from his speech. While international law does not differentiate between Israeli ‘settlements’ and ‘outposts’ (both are illegal), and while the roadmap specifically requires that the government of Israel “freezes all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements)” in its initial (current) phase, the only time Sharon has mentioned settlements publicly since the text of the roadmap was released was to avow that the issue is not up for imminent discussion.

The Red Sea Summit thus highlights the fact that the Palestinian prime minister unconditionally accepts the roadmap and the obligations assigned to him therein vis-à-vis the Palestinian rejectionists who oppose his government, while his Israeli counterpart heads the government that itself opposes its obligations under the plan.

The crux of the matter remains the willingness of the two warring parties to share the Holy Land. In 1993 the Palestinian leadership formally accepted Israel’s right to exist in its June 4th, 1967 border with mutually-agreed minor adjustments, thus agreeing to a lopsided sharing of the Holy Land: 78% for the Israeli state, 22% for the Palestinian state. Israel has not yet accepted that split. While the roadmap leaves undefined the specific parameters of the end game, it is nonetheless widely viewed as the only way out of the morass that has engulfed the Holy Land in recent years. If it is to progress beyond Phase I, the Israeli and Palestinian leaders must both accept their responsibilities, and decisively act upon them. Failure of either party to comply means the dissipation of what little optimism the Red Sea Summit may have produced, and the inevitable collapse of yet another peace process.

It was warm in Aqaba last Tuesday, so much so that Ariel Sharon visibly suffered from the temperature, wearily wiping the sweat off his brow as he stood at his lectern. More seriously, the new peace process is already compromised by the Israeli prime minister’s fuzzy logic that requires Mahmoud Abbas to disarm Palestinian militants before Israel matches the Palestinian Authority’s unconditional acceptance of the roadmap. It is now up to the White House to ensure that the roadmap is fully implemented by both sides. So far George W. Bush has talked the talk. It remains to be seen whether the president–whose middle name is Walker–will lead all concerned parties in walking the walk.

TARIF ABBOUSHI lives in Houston, Texas. He can be reached at: tabboushi@aol.com