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Middle East: Israeli, Palestinian Leaders Declare Cease-Fire At Summit

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas both proclaimed a formal end to violence during a summit at Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik today. The cease-fire aims to bring an end to the Palestinian intifada and Israeli military activity that has left more than 4,000 people dead since September 2000. Palestinian officials say they also hope the summit will pave the way for new peace negotiations. Today's summit is part of a growing rapprochement since Abbas was elected in January to head the Palestinian Authority. But despite the proclamation of hope, officials, and analyts say there are potential pitfalls ahead.

Prague, 8 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The cease-fire formally announced at the end of today's summit came in the form of separate statements read by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas.

Abbas said he reached an agreement with Sharon "to cease all acts of violence against Israelis and against Palestinians wherever they are." He said that a calm currently prevailing in the region signals the start of a new era that is "the start of a hopeful peace."

The Palestinian leader described the cease-fire as "the implementation of the first phase" of the U.S.-backed "road map" for a Mideast peace and an essential step toward putting the peace process back on track.

Sharon made a similar pledge, saying Israel will cease "all military activity against all Palestinians everywhere." Sharon described the opportunity for peace as "fragile." He said both sides must move forward cautiously to ensure that they do not "let this opportunity drown in bloodletting." He said all Palestinians and Israelis must proclaim that "violence will not be allowed to murder hope."

Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said the Palestinian leadership is determined to exert every possible effort to maintain the peace. He said he hopes today's summit will signal a new beginning between Israelis and Palestinians.

"I believe this summit is a summit of beginnings and not a summit of beginnings and ends. I hope this summit will be the first in a series of summits. In the last three weeks, we and our Israeli colleagues have held intensive, constructive, in-depth preparatory meetings in which certain things were agreed and certain other things remained unagreed," Erekat said.

The diplomatic breakthrough follows a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Israel and the West Bank on 6-7 February. Rice was in Rome today where she spoke with Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini about the potential for a breakthrough in the Mideast peace process.

"We did have an extensive discussion, first, of the prospects for peace in the Middle East. We agree that this is a time of opportunity. We agree that this is a time when the international community should engage with the parties in the region. And we both expressed our desire that today's Sharm el-Sheikh meetings will be a positive development. We recognize that there is a long road ahead of the Israelis and the Palestinians. But it is a time when both parties seem committed to trying to take advantage of the opportunity before them," Rice said.

The summit host, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and Jordan's King Abdullah, also added their support to the diplomatic effort. Both were involved in today's talks.

Rosemary Hollis heads the Mideast Program of Chatham House, a London-based research institution formerly known as the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

"This is a moment of opportunity in several ways. The Israelis want to move forward on their disengagement -- their withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians want to try an end to violence and a peaceful approach towards a two-state solution to their conflict with the Israelis. And the Americans, with the confirmation of Condoleezza Rice as the new secretary of state, need to show that they mean business and when there is an opportunity they are not going to let it slip," Hollis told RFE/RL.

But Hollis noted that today's summit leaves unanswered many issues that must be resolved through future talks on the creation of an independent and democratic Palestinian state that exists side-by-side with Israel.

"Both the Palestinians and the Israelis are exhausted and depressed by the last four years of violence. They would dearly like a new way forward. And so the appetite is there for a cease-fire. But whether that can then be linked to a larger negotiating process about the two-state solution is very much moot. I think you could say that the Israelis, for the time being, are interested in a cease-fire and then disengagement from Gaza. But then they want to reserve
judgment on negotiations towards a two-state solution," Hollis said.

A spokesman for Hamas, the radical Islamic group that has been responsible for hundreds of attacks against Israelis during the past four years, said Hamas will evaluate the outcome of today's summit before committing itself to halting its campaign of violence.

Analysts note other potential pitfalls ahead on the path to a permanent peace. Many Palestinians fear Israel may be trying to cement its control over parts the West Bank that it has occupied since the Six-Day War of 1967.

Abbas today also reiterated his demands that Israel abide by commitments in the road map to freeze the growth of Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territory and to stop building a barrier inside the West Bank. Israel says the barrier is a security measure aimed at stopping suicide bombers from crossing from Palestinian territory into Israel.

Abbas also noted the unresolved issues of the final status of Jerusalem within a future Palestinian state and the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to land in areas that are now part of Israel.