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Sharm e- Shekh, Again…

Shlomo Ben-Ami, the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy, is an Oxford-trained historian, a former member of the Knesset, Minister of Public Security, and finally Minister of Foreign Affairs. He has been a key participant in many Arab-Israeli peace conferences, most notably the Camp David summit in 2000. In the post below Ben-Ami looks forward and backwards at the peace process.

Driven by a common fear of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and by a false assumption that denies its legitimacy as a political force, the attempts, always with Sharm e-Shekh as the venue of emergency regional summits, to rally the “moderates” against the “extremists” in the Middle East have been throughout a frustrating experience.

In the spring of 1996, the “moderates” – President Mubarak of Egypt, King Hussein of Jordan, scars-of-war.jpgYassir Arafat from Palestine, and even some representatives of the Gulf dynasties – were hastily convened in Sharm e-Shekh together with President Clinton and Secretary General Kofi Annan in a desperate attempt to dam up the emergence of radical Islam. They were also expected to give an electoral boost to Prime Minister Peres from Israel who, severely undermined by a Hamas devastating campaign of suicide terrorism, was about to be defeated by Benjamin Netanyahu. Islamic fundamentalism remained of course unimpressed, and the assertion of both its Jihadist and political identity only gained momentum ever since.

In October 2000, Sharm e-Shekh became again the stage for yet another summit with almost the same actors invited, this time to call for the end of the Palestinian Intifada and for the parties to come to a final peace agreement. Both objectives were subscribed by all the participants, yet none of them was implemented. As one of the active players in that summit I could appreciate the reason of the abysmal gap between what was agreed by the “moderates” and the harsh realities driving the advance of the “extremists”. The only way Arafat could stop the Intifada and stem the advance of Hamas was through an especially generous peace deal from Israel. But, such a deal became impossible precisely because, through the Intifada, Arafat raised the expectations of the Palestinian masses to such heights that it became impossible for Israel to meet.

Notwithstanding the commendable gestures of Prime Minister Olmert in Sharm e-Shekh 2007, the summit’s achievements are bound to be short lived. It is unrealistic to assume that just by giving back to the Palestinians the tax revenues that are due to them, removing a number of check points to allow a minimal contiguity between Palestinian cities in the occupied West Bank, and even releasing 250 Fatah prisoners “with no blood on their hands” will Prime Minister Olmert be able to calm down the Palestinian volcano, and enhance President Abbas’ leadership and Fatah’s edge over Hamas. Indeed, all the indications are that Hamas might soon boost its popularity by getting, in exchange for Corporal Gilead Shalit, the release of even more prisoners, this time “with blood on their hands”, than Mr.Abbas.

The alliance of the moderates goes with a price that neither Israel nor the Bush administrations are ready to pay. The Israeli-American conception of driving a wedge between Gaza and the West Bank while shunning negotiations on a peace settlement that could allow Abbas to undermine Hamas clashes frontally with the Arab view. However critical they might be of Hamas’ coup d’etat in Gaza, to use Mr.Mubarak’s expression, the Arab leaders cannot afford the domestic implications of a policy of exclusion of Hamas. Indeed, Mr.Mubarak has already called for a resumption of the inter-Palestinian dialogue that might lead to yet another attempt at a national unity government.

President Abbas is being asked to opt for very high stakes- defeating Hamas and with it the cause of Islamic fundamentalism in the region – with inadequate resources. While mortgaging his entire Middle East policy to the concept of an “ideological confrontation” against the forces of evil, President Bush is piling his entire strategy on the weary shoulders of a defeated Palestinian president without really providing him with the necessary tools.

By just pouring money and arms on Abbas without offering him a political horizon, while at the same time imprisoning all the Hamas leaders in the West Bank, Israel and the U.S condemn Mr.Abbas to being portrayed by his people as a Palestinian collaborator that is subservient to the interests of the occupier.

But, the Arab side is not free of blame either. No Israeli government will venture again to make far reaching peace offers to a Palestinian Authority whose reign is one of abdication and anarchy. That Hamas became such a formidable military force has certainly much to do also with the lukewarm performance of the Egyptians in the task of preventing the massive smuggling of weapons into the Gaza strip. The taming of Hamas is in Egypt’s interest, but it refuses to pay the price of a direct confrontation with it that might portray the Egyptian forces along the Philadelphi road as the protectors of Israel.

The limits of President Mubarak’s strategy are desperately narrow. His role as a broker of sorts is mostly aimed at endearing himself to America where Congress is highly critical of his record in matters of human rights, as well as at his home front where he needs to cultivate, at the lowest price possible, the image of the champion of the Palestinian cause.

Calling for Israeli concessions is perfectly legitimate, even necessary. But the credibility of such demands is sadly undermined by how little the Arab side is ready to do to alleviate the Palestinians’ misery and, no less importantly, help them face the hard choices if an orderly Palestinian state is indeed ever to emerge.

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