Within days of the Israeli-Palestinian summit conference this month in the Egyptian city of Sharm el-Sheik, the euphoric visions of peace generated by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President Mahmoud Abbas were dissipating amid Qassam rockets, clan killings and warnings that only actions, not words, could improve matters.
After all, peace initiatives with promise have been fast-tracked to oblivion repeatedly over four years.
Abbas' experience during and after the last serious peace conference, in June 2003, illustrates the fragility of Middle East peacemaking. And important differences between the current initiative and failed efforts of the past are giving people cause to balance their skepticism with an uncharacteristic measure of hope.
"A new opportunity for peace exists. ... Just as Israel must meet its responsibilities, we, the Palestinians, will fulfill our obligations for this to succeed," Abbas declared at the summit in Aqaba, Jordan, in 2003, when he was prime minister. "Let me be clear. There will be no military solution to this conflict. ... We will exert full efforts to ending the militarization of the intifada, and we will succeed."
They didn't. The truce established at that time collapsed within weeks. Abbas was forced from office. The killings continued. The summit Feb. 8 in Sharm el-Sheik was at least the fourth major attempt to negotiate an end to the fighting that erupted in September 2000, and few ordinary people on either side expect the situation to improve quickly, though they may fervently wish that it will.
"We hope, but we don't believe," said Eli Teller, a pharmacist in Tel Aviv. "When my big boy was 2 years old and I went away to the war in Lebanon, my friends said he would not have to go to the army.
"He's 24 now, he finished four years, and my second boy began last week," Teller said. "I have said nothing these last two weeks," as the situation
appeared to be improving. "It will take me a minimum of one or two months to begin to believe."
Fahmi al Bahtiti, a Gazan, said: "I watched the conference at Sharm el-Sheik with big hope. ... We want to live in peace with the Jews."
He invoked the Palestinians' wish that all who fled during Israel's 1948 war for independence would one day return to their original towns -- a hope as cherished by Palestinians as is the wish for an end to army service by Israelis.
"Let's be realistic," Bahtiti said. "The refugees will never return for Haifa. This is impossible. I hope the cease-fire will work."
Thanks to the Abbas-Sharon agreement, Bahtiti was able to go to his factory job in the Erez Industrial Zone, straddling the Israel-Gaza border, for the first time since a suicide bomber killed four soldiers there in April.
"Every Palestinian is hopeful," he said, because they know a better future lies in cooperation with Israel. "They hate us in the Gulf. ... We have only the gate to Israel."
Despite this wariness, bred of past disappointment, there are substantial differences between previous summits and the talks at Sharm el-Sheik. Among them:
* Yasser Arafat, who forced Abbas to resign after Abbas declared that the armed struggle should end, is dead and with him his urgings for a million Palestinian "martyrs" to march on Jerusalem. Abbas is an elected president with a popular mandate. Incitement against Israel and Jews in the Palestinian media has declined precipitously since the election.
* The Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, who did not attend the Aqaba summit in 2003, has taken a leading role this time. He has given major symbolic support to Sharon by reducing Israel's isolation in the region and has given practical support to Abbas, who must have Egypt's cooperation to choke the flow of weapons to the Islamic extremist group Hamas and get it to honor the cease-fire.
* A majority of Israelis are ready to give up territory and to evacuate settlements. And for the first time, according to poll-takers on each side, a majority of Israelis and Palestinians embrace the basic peace plan that Arafat walked away from at the Camp David peace conference of July 2000.
The public on both sides is weary of the struggle and is accepting of Abbas' position that no military solution is possible for either side. Ordinary Israelis and Palestinians are hopeful about the new Palestinian leader, who is called by his nickname, Abu Mazen.
"I like Abu Mazen," said Nahum Nissin, a guard in Tel Aviv and a staunch Sharon supporter. "He always said there is no need to send suicide bombers to Israel. The question is, can he really stand firm? We will see in the coming days."
Relative quiet prevailed last weekend in the Gaza Strip, after Hamas launched 50 mortars and rockets at Israeli settlements at midweek, but contempt was abundant for the summit in general, and for Abbas in particular. Hamas leaders told Abbas that they would maintain an undeclared truce with Israel but that they have made no decision on an official cease-fire.
"It has been written in the Quran that Jews always break treaties," said Anwar Ishkian, a student at Islamic University. He was among the worshipers at Khulafa Mosque in Jabalya camp and echoed a common, though not universal, understanding of verse 100 of the opening chapter of the Muslim holy scripture. "We do not trust Jews and Egyptians."
Another sentiment is found around the mosque -- and throughout the occupied territories -- that makes this a decisive moment for Hamas, as well as for Abbas. If it persists in making war, the organization will be less able to pursue its ambitions to be active in the civil politics of an emerging Palestinian democracy.
These ambitions are fed both by Hamas' recent successes in municipal elections and by the serious damage done to its military capacity by Israeli forces.
Abbas' first response to the defiance of his leadership was tough -- a dismissal of top commanders of Palestinian Authority forces in Gaza for failing to keep the peace. But he continued to avoid a direct confrontation with Hamas, which took responsibility for the attacks.
Israel refrained from going after Hamas for the attacks, but officials made clear that they would not long continue to absorb blows without retaliating and that they would return to the unilateral course for managing the conflict that Sharon had been pursuing before Arafat's death.
The only hope
Many Palestinians are deeply alarmed at the consequences to them if Sharon goes through with his intention to disengage Israelis and the Palestinians by evacuating Gaza and constructing a security barrier around much of the West Bank. Even some who support Hamas see Abbas' negotiations with Sharon as the only hope for avoiding a unilateral Israeli pullback that would impose a stifling isolation on them.
Abbas' appeal at the summit, to let "dialogue replace the language of bombs and bullets, and coexistence and good neighborliness replace the wall," seemed to resonate deeply with these Palestinians -- but not with Hamas.
Most political credit and physical assets, such as the buildings the Israelis will leave behind in Gaza, would go to Fatah (the Movement for the National Liberation of Palestine) and the Palestinian Authority if the withdrawal is coordinated between Israelis and Palestinians. A major portion of these spoils are likely to go to Hamas if Israel's withdrawal is unilateral and appears to be occurring under fire.
"We do not want the Zionist enemy to pull out of Gaza without paying a political price and without paying a security price," said Mushir al Masri, Hamas' principal spokesman in Gaza.
Sharon's unilateral separation plan was a gamble that paid off because, when Fatah leaders and the Egyptian government saw the potential problems they could experience if Hamas took over in Gaza, everyone wanted to be involved.
As a result, Sharon -- who is condemned in much of the Arab world as a butcher and bulldozer of Palestinians -- was accorded much more respect than his predecessor, Ehud Barak, received at the October 2000 summit, even though Barak had offered the most generous plan for settling the conflict ever offered by an Israeli leader.
The respect shown to Sharon, the strong backing for his plan expressed by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the general agreement on a consensual rather than unilateral withdrawal have reinforced the disengagement plan's standing in Israel, where it previously has been on shaky political ground. The summit and the recent Rice visit also buoyed the Palestinian leader with many of his constituents.
But not with the militant Islamists of Gaza. The "very fragile opportunity" for an end to violence that Sharon hailed at Sharm now depends entirely on whether Abbas and Mubarak can handle Hamas.
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