President Bush's summit with the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers in Aqaba, Jordan, ended with vows from all parties to work toward peace. That has given hope to some, stirred anger among others and left still others doubting that words can be translated into deeds.
Israel's daily Haaretz newspaper refers to one small step for regional mankind, in its front page analysis of the summit. And that, perhaps, best describes what happened Wednesday in Aqaba, when George Bush, Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas stood alongside their host, King Abdullah of Jordan, to promise to work for peace in the region.
The goal was to get Israelis and Palestinians to agree on implementing the road map, the international peace plan drafted and backed by the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.
Speaking in Aqaba, President Bush said it was a good beginning. "All here today now share a goal," he said. "The Holy Land must be shared between a state of Palestine and a state of Israel, living in peace with each other and with every nation of the Middle East."
Prime Minister Sharon and his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, agreed that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would not be solved by violence or military means.
Prime Minister Abbas called for an end to armed resistance against Israeli occupation. "We will exert all of our efforts to end the militarization of the intifada, and we will succeed," said Mahmoud Abbas.
Even though the majority of Palestinians say they want peace, and even though Mr. Abbas has spoken out against violence in the past, his words angered many Palestinians. An editorial in the London-based Al Quds al Arabi newspaper Thursday described his latest statement as a catastrophe.
Many Palestinians argue that he caved in to American pressure in pledging an end to violence, without demanding that Israel do the same. There is also anger that he bluntly labeled Palestinian militant actions 'terrorism,' and that he did not mention the right of Palestinian refugees to return home, nor did he refer to the goal that, one day, Jerusalem will be the capital of a future Palestinian state.
Militant groups such as Islamic Jihad, Hamas and others said they would not abandon violence in the fight against Israeli occupation.
Israeli analyst Shlomo Brum is a retired general and a senior researcher at Tel Aviv's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. He says Mr. Abbas, who is commonly known as Abu Mazen, will find it difficult to stop the violence. "The Islamic organizations, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, are not willing to accept it, and even if they will accept it, they will accept it only for a limited period of time," he said. "And then, the test for Abu Mazen will be whether he is capable of forcing them to stop their action. It looks to me as if he's too weak to do it."
Speaking at the Aqaba summit, Ariel Sharon lent his support to the creation of a democratic Palestinian state, which he said would promote long-term security for Israel. And, he promised to get rid of Jewish settlement outposts in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that have been established without government authorization. "I want to reiterate that Israel is a society governed by the rule of law," said Ariel Sharon. "Thus, we will immediately begin to remove unauthorized outposts."
Even though that pledge concerns only a small number of tiny outposts of tents and trailers, the words drew the immediate ire of Jewish hard-liners and settlers, thousands of whom demonstrated through the streets of Jerusalem Wednesday night, protesting the destruction of any settlements.
Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, who was not invited to the Aqaba meeting, dismissed Mr. Sharon's offer as meaningless. He said there is little significance in removing a few trailers.
Israeli analyst Shlomo Brum agrees with those who doubt Mr. Sharon is really committed to removing the outposts, and says his pledge gives him plenty of room to maneuver. "Even from the way he worded this promise, I can see that he [Sharon] is going to do the minimal, or do nothing at all, because he can use the term 'unauthorized' to manipulate the issue in such a way that only a few and vacant outposts will be defined as unauthorized," said Shlomo Brum.
Mr. Brum says, if the new international peace plan is to have any chance of success, it will depend very much on active and sustained American involvement and American monitors on the ground. "The U.S. has to monitor very closely what is happening, and to react promptly, and to not be too forgiving to violations of the commitments of the two parties [Israeli and Palestinian]," he said.
He says only if that happens is there a chance for progress.
But others here remain hopeful, saying that, after more than 2.5 years of violence, Israelis and Palestinians have at least resumed talking, and have made some commitments to embark on the road to peace.
Further small steps are envisioned, including a possible meeting in the coming days between Mr. Abbas and Palestinian militants to try to get them to pledge to stop attacks against Israel, and a meeting between Israel's defense minister and army commanders to discuss dismantling some settlement outposts.