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Cautious Optimism Follows Latest Mideast Summit


The ceremonies, speeches and handshakes are over. It's the "day-after" Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas pledged to end the violence, which over the past four and a half years has left more than 4,000 people dead on both sides.

They seem intent on not raising expectations too high, as Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat makes clear.

"I think the Sharm el-Sheikh summit is a summit of beginnings," said Mr. Erekat.

No one is talking about peace being just around the corner or about tackling the real core issues of the decades old conflict. Both sides say they do want to get back to the long-stalled road map peace plan but, the immediate focus is on concrete steps. Saeb Erekat says security is the key issue.

"We need to ensure the cessation of violence. Israel needs to reciprocate," he said. "And, I hope that this will hold. If this holds, then we can move on all other issues and reaching the stage where we see implementation of the road map in full, reaching a stage where we see an end to Israeli occupation, that began in '67."

Israeli officials also say making the cease-fire they agreed upon in Sharm el-Sheikh hold is of primary concern. But, as senior government advisor and spokesman, Avi Pazner explains, the Israelis want the Palestinians to go further to dismantle the militant factions.

"If we leave the terrorist factions armed and deployed as they are now, it's only a question of time until violence will resume," he said. "So, Mahmoud Abbas will have now his work cut out for him because he will have to see how to neutralize these organizations."

Mr. Abbas has gotten the militants to agree to an informal truce, or "calm" as some militant leaders like to say. He is trying to coax them into the political fold but has been treading carefully when it comes to the issue of disarming them. And, Palestinian officials seem reluctant to focus on the issue.

"We're taking small steps in a very long road," described Saeb Erekat. "Let us focus on what we have in our hand. Let us focus now on the cease-fire. We told them [the Israelis] and they told us that they will honor their obligations, we'll honor our obligations and let's take it from there."

The Palestinians say they will make an all-out effort to ensure the cease-fire holds. Prime Minister Sharon says he will press ahead with his plan to withdraw all Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip in the coming months. More immediately though, Israel says it will release 900 Palestinian prisoners in the coming weeks, withdraw its troops and hand over control of five West Bank cities beginning with Jericho, dismantle checkpoints, ease Palestinian travel and work restrictions and discuss rebuilding the Gaza seaport. Avi Pazner says these are important steps.

"A whole series of concrete measures which are both gestures of goodwill and an indication to the Palestinians that change has come and that these changes are for the better," he said.

Joint working groups have been set up to deal with the various steps that are either already underway or imminent. And, Mr. Abbas is expected to meet soon with Mr. Sharon at the prime minister's ranch.

After the Sharm el-Sheikh summit there is cautious optimism, but both sides acknowledge the situation remains tenuous.

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