Hope for peace between Palestinians, Israelis at highest point since '93

JERUSALEM - It began, as it had last time and the time before, with a celebratory handshake and soaring rhetoric about a chance for peace in this ravaged land.

Yesterday's landmark summit, during which Israel and the Palestinians announced they would cease violence, harkened back to past chapters of peacemaking - all with unhappy endings.

The last time the two sides appeared this hopeful was in 1993, when then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat sealed the Oslo peace accord with a famous handshake on the White House lawn. The accord sputtered for years until the Palestinian uprising broke out in 2000.

In June 2003, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Palestinian Authority's Mahmoud Abbas, then secretary general, clasped hands at a vaunted summit in Aqaba, Jordan, to announce a cease-fire that dissolved three months later into a familiar cycle of suicide bombings and deadly Israeli reprisals.

Changing conditions

But this time several key conditions have changed. Both sides see a window of opportunity after Arafat's death and Abbas' recent landslide election. Arafat, long considered by the Israelis as an obstacle to peace, was not around any longer. Abbas has what many consider a fresh mandate to negotiate with the Israelis, and he has worked to draw armed Palestinian groups into the political process.

Many analysts saw Palestinians' enthusiasm about Abbas as a sign that they were growing tired of the conflict and wanted a different approach. Israel, on the other hand, was preparing to unilaterally pull out of the Gaza Strip and undoubtedly saw an opportunity to get Palestinian forces to fill the security vacuum.

Adding to the raised hopes is the Bush administration's stated commitment to involve itself more in Middle East diplomacy after largely steering clear during the past four years.

The administration says Abbas' recent election provides the best opportunity for peace in years and breathes new life into the road map. The initiative - sponsored by the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations - has been stalled since its debut in Aqaba because neither side has met its first obligations.

Both sides offered fresh endorsements of the blueprint yesterday, but it remained unclear how those pledges would meet their obligations under the plan, which envisions creation of an independent Palestinian state by the end of this year.

And left unanswered is whether the latest gestures will fulfill the renewed hopes or be remembered as another promising handshake.

Abbas, a moderate with a background in negotiations with Israel, has disavowed the use of violence in pursuit of a Palestinian state. He lacked a street following when Arafat died in November, but he managed to consolidate backing inside the Palestine Liberation Organization and handily won elections last month to become president of the Palestinian Authority.

Earning respect

Abbas has earned the respect of Israeli and U.S. officials with his efforts to persuade militants to hold their fire while he pursued new talks with the Israelis. His negotiations with militants resulted in a de facto cease-fire weeks before Israel and the Palestinians made their declarations yesterday to halt violence.

Gains will be difficult this time, too. Despite sweeping pledges, the summit left untouched troublesome, fundamental issues such as the borders of a future Palestinian state, sovereignty over Jerusalem and whether Palestinian refugees can move back to Israel.

Israel seems determined to break the negotiations into small stages. The Jewish state is eager to deal first with security issues and insists that the Palestinians stop all attacks against Israelis.

But Israel knows it will have to make meaningful concessions if Abbas is to last long enough to be a partner for peace. Abbas was prime minister when he joined Sharon in Aqaba in 2003 for a formal launching of the U.S.-backed peace blueprint known as the "road map." When he quit four months later amid friction with Arafat, he laid blame, too, with Sharon for not granting him any substantial achievements, such as the mass release of Palestinian prisoners - a move that would satisfy Hamas and other militant groups.

Israel's goals have evolved, as well. Sharon, the prime minister, is pushing to withdraw from all 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and four others in the West Bank. The plan has raised the ire of settlers and their right-wing allies.

The Gaza pullout was initially conceived as a unilateral pullback from land that Sharon said would not likely end up in Israel's hands at the end of any eventual peace agreement with the Palestinians. But it has become a symbol of what might be possible through renewed Israeli-Palestinian cooperation.

Sharon said yesterday that he was "absolutely determined" to carry out the withdrawal and suggested that it would be done in coordination with the Palestinians "if new change does emerge on the Palestinian side."

The withdrawal would be easier to accomplish with Palestinian help to prevent potential attacks by militants seeking to make the pullout appear as if Israel was fleeing. Israeli officials have been working with Egypt to work out security along the southern border of the Gaza Strip once Israel leaves.

Armed groups such as Hamas have lodged reservations about the cease-fire announcements.

But in another shift from the past, Palestinian officials hope to bring them into the political mainstream, training some of the fighters as security officers.

It remains to be seen how either side would react if a deadly bombing occurred inside Israel.

Sharon noted that the situation is fragile and warned that both sides had to guard against "extremists" intent on sabotaging the nascent reconciliation. But he appeared to suggest there was now something for both sides to lose.

Los Angeles Times staff writer Sonni Efron in Washington and researcher Hossam Hamalawy in Cairo, Egypt, contributed to this article. The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.