Sharon and Abbas Hold Summit, Call For End of Violence

EI’s Ali Abunimah in the Democracy Now! studios for an earlier appearance, on 13 September 2003. (EI)

In the first Israeli-Palestinian summit in four years, Israeli Prime Minister Gen. Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas verbally agreed today to end four years of fighting. Since the intifada began in September 2000, about 3,600 Palestinians and 1,050 Israelis have been killed in fighting.

Israeli and Palestinian leaders are expected to announce a cease-fire deal today to end more than four years of bloodshed which has claimed over 4,000 lives.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas are expected to declare a truce at a summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh today. The meeting is the highest-level talks between the two sides since 2000. Abbas is expected to announce the end of the intifada and Sharon will vow to refrain from any military action in the occupied territories if the ceasefire is not broken. The talks are also being attended by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah.

Sharon’s spokesman Raanan Gissin said each side would make a separate declaration of an end to violence rather than signing a cease-fire agreement. Chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, told Reuters he anticipated the establishment of joint committees to oversee the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails and the phased withdrawal of Israeli forces from Palestinian areas of the West Bank.

US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice met with Abbas yesterday in Ramallah. She has appointed an army general as “security coordinator” to supervise reform of Palestinian security forces. The general, William Ward, is former commander of the Nato stabilization force in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and has served in Egypt as military liaison officer.

Both Abbas and Sharon have accepted invitations to make separate visits to Washington in the spring. To talk about the cease-fire deal, we are joined by two guests with different perspectives: Hussein Ibish joins us in our DC studio. He is a Senior Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and on the line from Chicago we are joined by Ali Abunimah, founder of the Electronic Intifada.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by two guests. Hussein Ibish joins us in our D.C. studio. He’s a Senior Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. And on the phone with us from Chicago, we’re joined by Ali Abunimah, the founder of Electronic Intifada. We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Hussein Ibish, let’s begin with you. Can you talk about the latest developments today and the cease-fire?

HUSSEIN IBISH: Well, I think it’s extremely interesting. First of all what — I think what you’re looking at, actually, is a series of events that are putting Prime Minister Sharon increasingly out of step with the other actors. And I think putting him in a diplomatic box in a very interesting way. You must remember that it was Sharon who led Israel away from the talks, in the sense that the talks continued throughout 2000, up until January, 2001 at Taba where all sides said significant progress was being made. They were cut short by Ehud Barak in preparation for the Israeli elections. Sharon won the election in February, 2001 and since then there has been no negotiation and no interest, I believe, on the part of Ariel Sharon in resuming negotiations. And I think what has happened is, with the Palestinian election, the victory of Mahmoud Abbas, and the re-election of President Bush and his very public recommitment to the roadmap and to his so-called vision of two states living side by side, you’ve got to - you’ve ended up with a situation where Sharon’s stated intention, as expressed by his senior adviser Dov Weisglass, to put the — all movement in “formaldehyde” and to prevent anything that might — you know — inch towards the creation of a Palestinian state on hold permanently, is being severely disrupted. As for the cease-fire itself, well, I think it’s - it’s again, it’s going to be a very important part of what I see as a Palestinian diplomatic offensive here to - as I say, to box in Ariel Sharon. And I think it - it’s — in the end, it’s likely to strengthen their position rather than his. Although, of course, there’s every reason to be skeptical. I mean, if you look at the history of the conflict, anyone who’s Pollyanna-ish or thinks this is going to be a panacea or thinks everything is going to clear up overnight is kidding themselves. But, as I say, I think it’s interesting to watch the - the sort of noose tighten around Mr. Sharon and his refusal to cooperate.

AMY GOODMAN: Ali Abunimah of Electronic Intifada, your response.

ALI ABUNIMAH: Well, it’s good to try to put an optimistic and positive spin on things, but I really can’t share the optimism. I think what we’re seeing is absolutely nothing new. We have seen the total replacement of substance with form, and I don’t see that Ariel Sharon is coming under increasing pressure from any of the other actors. On the contrary, yesterday the Washington Post published a detailed investigation showing the extent to which Israel is accelerating the construction of Jewish-only colonies in the occupied West Bank, an effort calculated and intended to prevent the emergence of any Palestinian state. And we see absolutely no pressure from the international community. Times were when U.S. Secretaries of State would go to the region, and they would explicitly talk about the settlements. Condoleezza Rice just came back. She didn’t even mention the word settlement. She made a vague statement about Israel having to take hard decisions. As for a cease-fire, I would very much like to see a full cease-fire. The problem here is if you look at the statements, and as Sharon is speaking right now, but what has been leaked from the Israeli side is — there’s nothing new in the Israeli formulation. They reserve the right to act in what they call self-defense. But Israel has never admitted to anything other than self-defense. So, really, I think that nothing new here, and what has been demanded is that Israel be allowed to continue seizing Palestinian land, building settlements, while the Palestinians have the responsibility for policing themselves and insuring that nothing disturbs Israel’s colonization. I want to see a genuine truce. I would like to see an end to all violence. The problem is that the definition of violence has been tailored to exclude the most significant source of the violence, which is Israel’s continued violent colonization of occupied Palestinian land. Just last week, the Israelis announced their plan to destroy the entire Al-Muntar neighborhood in occupied East Jerusalem. Previously, they announced their plan to demolish up to 3,000 more homes of Palestinian refugees in Rafa as part of their so-called Gaza disengagement. So, I’m very, very doubtful that we’re going to see any change on the ground. And optimism is — is fine, but I think it’s going to be overtaken by events fairly rapidly because absolutely nothing has changed in the fundamental relationship between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and nothing has changed in terms of the U.S. approach to the region. Last spring, the United States formally endorsed Ariel Sharon’s position that the bulk of the settlements in the occupied territories will remain in Israeli hands forever. And there’s absolutely no reason to believe this is anything more than a — a truce of convenience for Sharon and Abbas, who both have domestic reasons why they want to make the appearance of progress; but even on the issue of prisoners, the Israelis have given absolutely nothing to the Palestinians. So, optimism is good, but it needs to be based on — on some kind of evidence.

AMY GOODMAN: Hussein Ibish.

HUSSEIN IBISH: Well, I think that, you know, obviously, this is — if it’s to turn into anything, this is only the first halting start. And, as I say, you know, if you point to the history of the conflict, there is no particular reason to be Polyanna-ish or optimistic. At the same time, it - you know, I think it’s pretty clear that this is not a situation that Sharon wanted to be in. I think that it’s pretty clear that he didn’t have an interest in interacting with the Palestinian interlocutor, that what suited him was to dictate unilateral measures such as the unilateral Gaza disengagement plan and not to have any conversations, let alone negotiations. I think this has been his general approach, and I think that that is coming under pressure; and I think that this summit is an example of that. I just don’t think this suits his style and his strategy at all. So, you know, we have to agree to disagree on that. Whether it actually proves to be something that grows into a more significant process, obviously is something that remains to be seen. But as I say, I think generally speaking this is more in sync with the Palestinians. [Inaudible] let me say this: the Intifada has gone on four years almost entirely without any kind of strategic direction. Now, one might question whether this is the — a proper strategic direction or not, but let’s just say, we’re starting to see more signs of a — of a strategic direction that involves the addition of diplomacy as well as other means available to the Palestinians. Certainly, even if one were to agree to a truce, one is not renouncing the right of self-defense. I don’t think that’s ever been done, and I don’t think that’s ever going to be done.

As for international pressure on the Israelis, I mean, I fully agree that the deck is stacked against Palestinians. That’s why we’re all part of this effort to support Palestinian human and national rights. But I think it is important to note that the plan the Israelis had to apply the absentee property law to East Jerusalem and to steal thousands and thousands of acres and homes and buildings from Palestinians was blocked, and was blocked through international pressure recently. And so, while obviously Ariel Sharon is being allowed to get away with a great deal of stuff that he shouldn’t be, at the same time, I don’t think it’s true that there’s absolutely no pressure whatsoever, and I don’t think it’s true that the international world plays absolutely no role. You know, my feeling is that it’s the easiest thing in the world to be pessimistic and to say that nothing has changed, and I think, you know, as I say, that history gives one a solid ground to do that; but I think one has to move forward, and one has to be careful not to be addled by cynicism and not to become sort of trapped in a discourse that sees no possibilities. I would not certainly say that anything fundamental has changed, or that this is a dawn of a new era or anything like that; but I would say that this is a situation overall in terms of this summit and in terms of where the diplomacy is going, that is better for a Palestinian strategy than for Ariel Sharon’s version of Israel’s strategy.

AMY GOODMAN: And Condoleezza Rice. Ali Abunimah, your thoughts. Does she represent any kind of departure from Colin Powell on this, her first overseas trip?

ALI ABUNIMAH: No. I don’t think the personalities make a difference at all. I think that, you know, U.S. policy is set by a number of competing forces and interests that tend to move very slowly; and nothing fundamental has changed. I mean, Colin Powell, when he first started his tenure, went to the region, and made statements far more bold than anything Condoleezza Rice has ever said. And I agree with Hussein saying it’s important not to be cynical and not to be stuck in - in an analysis that doesn’t get you anywhere, but I do think we have to be realistic; and, you know, what we’ve seen in this summit is the victory of the Israeli conception that the Palestinians are the aggressors and Israel is merely defending itself, while completely unaddressed is the deepening occupation, the growing colonies. Nobody is talking about that, and this is — this summit is dealing only with symptoms. The Intifada and the violence are not the cause of the conflict. As Hussein has said many time, the occupation is what fuels the conflict. The settlements, the devastation of Palestinian land and homes, that’s continuing. Israel hasn’t pledged to stop that. Israel hasn’t — Israel as far as the application of the absentee property law in occupied Jerusalem, it’s very good that the Israelis said that they won’t do that; but what we’ve seen in the past by Israel is tactical retreats, followed by them going ahead and doing things anyway. The landscape of the occupied territories are riddled with settlements built on places the Israelis pledged not to touch. And I think we have to see substantial — you know, if this - this start (let’s be optimistic) is to lead to something, we have to see massive and immediate international pressure on Israel to end the settlement expansion, to end the demolition of homes, and to end the measures which are continuing absolutely unabated.


ALI ABUNIMAH: What I expect will happen, though, is that there will be all this focus on what Palestinians have to do, and Israel will continue to do what it’s doing, and when Palestinians react to that, we’ll be told it’s the Palestinians who are disturbing the peace process. One final point —


ALI ABUNIMAH: One final point is that, you know, Sharon may not have wanted to be in Sharm El-Sheikh, but the Israelis are tacticians and they know how to read the winds. So, if it suits them to go to Sharm El-Sheikh and put on a good show they will. We remember the Israeli Prime Minister Itzhak Shamir who went to the Madrid Conference in 1991 and said afterwards very clearly in his memoir, that, you know, ‘I was under pressure to go. I went with the intention of dragging the negotiations on forever and - and while we build the settlements,’ and Israel is doing exactly the same thing now. And, you know, the onus is on Israel and on those who are reading a — some sort of change in the situation to really show that that’s happening. In the meantime, I’m going to remain focused like a laser beam on the continued destruction of Palestinian society by the occupation and the settlers.


HUSSEIN IBISH: I agree with you that we’re only dealing with symptoms. The thing is the roadmap provides a template for pressuring Israel to do exactly what you were saying: end its settlement activities; and I think that has to be the focus, to come back time and again to the roadmap.

AMY GOODMAN: On that note, I want to thank you both very much for being with us and —

HUSSEIN IBISH: Sure thing.

AMY GOODMAN: — ask you, Hussein Ibish: Is American Task Force on Palestine a new organization?

HUSSEIN IBISH: It’s been around for a couple of years; and it is an independent American organization dedicated to seeking peace through the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, thank you for joining us, and thank you as well, of course, to Ali Abunimah.

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