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Middle East: Israelis, Palestinians Renew Peace Process, But Tough Road Remains

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is officially back on track after yesterday's summit in Aqaba, Jordan, where Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised to uproot some settlements and his Palestinian counterpart promised to end armed violence. The summit, brokered by U.S. President George W. Bush, underlined Washington's intention to press both sides to follow a "road map" for peace, which envisions a Palestinian state in 2005. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at highlights of the summit and prospects for a peace settlement.

Prague, 5 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- At the Aqaba summit yesterday, the talk was about beginning a new journey toward peace after more than two and a half years of continuing violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

U.S. President George W. Bush described the process by saying, "The journey we are taking is difficult, but there is no other choice. No leader of conscience can accept more months and years of humiliation, killing, and mourning, and these leaders of conscience have made their declarations today in the cause of peace. The United States is committed to that cause, and if all sides fulfill their obligations, I know that peace can finally come."

Bush spoke after joint meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. The summit in Aqaba, a Jordanian port on the Red Sea, was hosted by Jordan's King Abdullah.

At the summit, Sharon reiterated his government's endorsement of the internationally backed "road map" for peace, which envisions the creation of a Palestinian state in 2005.

"It is in Israel's interest not to govern the Palestinians, but for the Palestinians to govern themselves in their own state," Sharon said. "A democratic Palestinian state, fully at peace with Israel, will promote the long-term security and well-being of Israel as a Jewish state."

Sharon -- long a champion of Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories -- also promised to dismantle some settlers' outposts that have been built without official approval since he came to office.

On the Palestinian side, Prime Minister Abbas said the "armed intifadah" of violent attacks on Israeli targets must now end and that the Palestinians "must resort to peaceful means." Speaking in Arabic, Abbas said "We will do our best and we will use all of our means to end the armed intifadah and we will succeed. The armed intifadah has to end and we have to use peaceful means to end the occupation and to end the suffering of Palestinians and Israelis and build the Palestinian state."

Abbas also appealed to Arab allies and other parties to end financial aid to extremist groups and militias largely responsible for attacks that have killed nearly 800 Israelis since September 2000. More than 2,300 Palestinians have died in Israeli crackdowns during the same period.

With those pledges made, the Israelis and Palestinians -- prodded by the Bush administration -- now embark on what analysts say will be the extremely challenging task of trying to reach an actual peace agreement that divides territory between them. The most recent peace efforts, brokered by U.S. President Bill Clinton, bogged down in disagreements and violence two and a half years ago.

Tim Garden of the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London says he sees some reasons to be cautiously optimistic that the new peace efforts could succeed. But he says there are plenty of obstacles to overcome before reaching any deals.

"It is an important step forward that all the key players are now accepting that there will be a Palestinian state, [but] the troubles on the route, of course, are still all there. It is not entirely clear that the Palestinians have any great ability to control the terrorist organizations which wish to disrupt the process. And it is still not entirely clear that the Sharon government can deliver on the road map either."

Within minutes of the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers' statements at Aqaba, two militant Palestinian movements -- Hamas and Islamic Jihad -- said they would not disarm. At the same time, tens of thousands of Israeli settlers protested in Jerusalem over Sharon's promise.

Garden also says any success will depend upon the U.S. president's determination to push the two sides toward agreements. But he says it remains unclear how much time Bush will devote to the task once he begins his own re-election campaign in earnest early next year.

"I think it is going to be difficult, particularly once President Bush goes home, [because] there will be delays and we start running into the U.S. election period," said Garden. "And then it is unlikely that President Bush will be able to devote that much effort to what is, from an electoral point of view, not a great [domestic] vote-winner."

Still, he says the Bush administration now appears to be giving high priority to an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, after largely staying away from the issue since Bush took office in January 2001. Garden says the administration may regard a peace deal as a necessity in the U.S.-led war on terror and as a way to convince the often anti-American Arab public that Washington is as vigorous in pursuing peace in the region as it was at waging war in Iraq.

Other analysts also caution that the road to an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord is daunting. They point to Palestinian distrust of Sharon and to uncertainties over how much authority Abbas wields after just five weeks in power.

But some feel those difficulties could be outweighed by the fact that both the mainstream Israeli and Palestinian publics now appear to be exhausted by the latest cycle of violence and to want negotiations.

Abdel Monem Said Ali, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, says Sharon may be an undesirable interlocutor in the eyes of Arab leaders but that that does not exclude a peace settlement.

"Sharon, like any political leader in Israel, will be sensitive to what kind of changes take place within Israeli public opinion. And I believe, coming from the Israeli-Egyptian experience, in which we dealt with [Menachem] Begin as an Israeli prime minister who was no less than Sharon in terms of militancy and who never really got sensitivity toward Arabs -- nevertheless [Begin] was transformed basically because of the changes that took place within Israeli society."

Ali also says the Palestinians' interlocutor Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, can rely on the support of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat as he embarks on negotiations. Arafat has been sidelined by the Sharon government and the U.S. over charges that he has not worked adequately to reign in attacks by Palestinian militant groups, but he remains the most powerful figure in Palestinian politics.

The analyst says Abbas is not acting outside the establishment Arafat has built up and would be able to exert its full weight against militant elements inside and outside it if the peace process appears to make progress.

"People forget that Abu Mazen has been a very close associate of Arafat for a long period of time, and he is a member of the executive council of the Fatah organization, which is the backbone of the Palestinian national movement. And Abu Mazen, in all his life, has taken a trend in Palestinian politics of preferring peaceful means for achieving Palestinian national objectives, not military and violent means."

With Bush now on his way back to Washington after a stop today in Qatar, analysts say the real test of how far the new peace process can move forward is about to begin.

Under the road map -- drawn up by the U.S., the European Union, the UN, and Russia -- provisional borders for a Palestinian state are supposed to be agreed upon by the end of this year.