Both the Aqaba and Sharm El-Sheikh summits raised a storm of reactions in the region, which will not calm down any time soon. An ideological and political conflict was triggered on the Palestinian and Israeli scenes about the Roadmap to settle the conflict, according to President Bush’s vision announced on June 24, 2002. The dramatic developments in the Palestinian territories that ensued the summits were proof that these summits were not sufficient to prevent an escalation between Palestinians and Israelis. The explosive situation following the Aqaba summit gave the impression that the latter had deepened the conflict instead of easing it. The new American approach personally set by Bush became doubtful and there is no guarantee that it will fare better than the precedent plans set by Powell, Mitchell, Cheney or Burns.
Despite the fact that everything was clear before and during Aqaba, the members of the U.S. administration were surprised by the deterioration of the situation in Gaza following the summit, particularly after Sharon failed to respect his commitments and ordered the assassination on 2003/06/10 of Dr. Abdul Aziz Al-Rantissi, a high-ranking Hamas official. The Americans, Jordanians, Palestinian PM Mahmoud Abbas, and the delegation accompanying him, all thought that the agreements they had reached during the closed sessions in Aqaba were enough to establish a good working ground to set off the first stage of the Roadmap. But the assassination plot and the Hamas retaliatory attack on a bus in Jerusalem showed that they were wrong. It became clear that a theoretical acceptance of the American approach to settle the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as mentioned in the map does not necessarily mean undertaking to implement it. As for Sharon’s 14 reservations to the map, they can quickly turn into air raids, killing attempts and attacks. Radicals from both sides gave a slap in the face of all the American efforts, only shortly after Bush returned from his long trip. It was obvious that those who directly and indirectly oppose and have reservations to the map have the power to destroy the map, according to a plan drawn by the master of the White House himself.
If we carefully examine the American reaction and the open ‘annoyance’ of President Bush with the Rantissi operation, we would find that it is unprecedented in this administration’s term. It carries an indirect accusation to Sharon, to the effect that he tried to murder Rantissi deliberately to undermine Aqaba’s results, which he and his Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz disliked.
It is true that Hamas and the Palestinian opposition forces opposed the Roadmap in a more direct way than Sharon did, and their leaders refused to commit, with nothing in return, to the easing stage suggested by the Palestinian Premier. However, the members of the administration, Bush and all those who are concerned by the settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict know that Hamas leadership did not close the door to the dialogue with Abbas and his government. Both sides are keeping on dialoguing and they are getting closer, with the help of the Egyptians, from agreeing on a long truce period within a framework that might be called “Gaza first.” According to this framework, Hamas movement will stop the military operations against Israel and Israel will stop killing and withdraw its army from the cities, villages and camps of the Strip to its previous positions before the eruption of the Intifada in September 2000. Abbas’ government, with the help of the U.S., will try to restore from Sharon’s government the many big and small Palestinian violated rights.
Regardless of the motives and reasons Sharon presented to the U.S. administration and the Israeli and international public opinion about the killing attempt of Rantissi, the nature and timing of the operation show that it took place in an offensive policy context decided by Sharon after the Aqaba summit in the hope of achieving several internal and external objectives through one air raid, the most important being undermining the results of the Aqaba summit, hindering the Roadmap he had reservations about, getting rid of one of Hamas radical symbols, provoking the movement’s leadership and leading it to the battlefield so it will push them to escalate its operations against the Israeli civilians, hence, using the escalation to undermine or postpone the implementation of the Roadmap.
It seems that Sharon thought the American side set a trap for Israel during the Aqaba talks called the Roadmap, especially that President Bush called upon both parties to implement their commitments simultaneously and not consecutively, and made no mention of the 14 reservations, which include the condition that Abbas and Dahlan freeze terrorist actions before Israel starts implementing its commitments mentioned in the plan.
Sharon’s second objective of the killing attempt of Rantissi and exploding the situation is demolishing the first American-Palestinian entente that was established in Aqaba and prevent it from progressing, especially that Sharon and his aids saw the results of Abbas’ success in expressing his point of view in Arabic and gaining the trust of President Bush and the delegation that accompanied him. For within a two-hours meeting he removed the majority of the distortions the Palestinian stance was subject to all during two years, as expressed by the American delegation. He convinced as well President Bush of the Palestinian point of view relevant to easing the situation and working on a truce with Hamas and the opposition forces instead of entering a bloody clash with them and launch a civil war as wishes Sharon. The Palestinian delegation established a differentiation between both the Israeli and the American stances regarding several issues, among which is the war on terrorism and the inhuman Israeli measures, the settlement policy, building the separation wall, liberating the Authority’s money and reinforce the role of Abbas and his government, etc.
Sharon’s third objective of the killing attempt is satisfying his personal anti-Palestinian rights conviction, satisfying the cadres and partisans of the Likud party he belongs to that accused him of ignoring the party?s principles and opposed the Roadmap he agreed to, reassuring the settlers who decided to start struggling against him and his government, preserving the unity of his government, satisfying his radical Rightists partners who refused the idea of dividing “the promised land God gave to Israel’s people,” and accused him of weakness, giving up to the American pressures and becoming weak before the Palestinian terrorism. They threatened him to leave his governmental coalition.
No doubt that reading the introductions, events and results of the Aqaba summit might lead to a different Palestinian stance, especially that they did not see or feel positive repercussions before and during it, while they saw after it Israel tightening the siege, increasing the land and air bombing and developments at the level of killings, invasions and destructions. The opposition has the right to examine the Roadmap all the time, to see only the empty half of the glass, to say that the Aqaba summit did not solve the problems between the two sides, on the contrary, it made them even more complex.
However, nobody has the right to deny that the Palestinians realized some advantages by agreeing to the “bad” Roadmap and participating in both the Aqaba and Sharm El-Sheikh summits. Among these advantages are the following: the renewal of the Arab support to the Palestinian national rights, especially the right of having an independent state and the renewal of the international concern to settle the Palestinian issue and consider the settlement of this issue the key to restoring the stability of this region. In addition to the U.S. adopting a new stance quasi-balanced and transforming the establishment of the Palestinian state by 2005 into a major point in its Middle East policy and President Bush understanding the Palestinian insistence on settling the internal conflicts by dialogue instead of launching an internal civil war.
Furthermore, we should not underestimate Sharon being obliged to agree to the Roadmap even though with reservations and conditions of not implementing it before 2005. For agreeing to it caused him internal and external problems because the most radical Rightist government in Israel is admitting failing to break the Palestinian will and settle the conflict by force according to its vision. I think that underestimating the words bush directly told the Palestinian delegation diminishes the possibility of ceasing and taking advantage of opportunities, especially his intention, as he said, to implement his vision and save the Palestinians from the oppression “as he did with the Afghani and Iraqi peoples.” He added: “I went to Iraq although everyone was against me and I will oblige Sharon to implement his commitments although many people doubt my ability of doing so.”
If these advantages seem for some people little and small, yet they are important for the long process of the conflict, especially in the stage of the repercussions of the war on Iraq. Bush’s words might be used to end Sharon’s attacks and decrease the Palestinian losses if some people consider them “empty” words that do not provide a basis to develop the American-Palestinian relation.
No doubt that President Bush personally leading the new American movement to settle the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and holding two consecutive summits in Sharm El-Sheikh and Aqaba gives a special dimension to the movement. However, this dimension is not enough to implement the Roadmap with its three stages and it is difficult to see both sides under Sharon’s mandate quickly progressing and passing the first stage of the map before the American presidential elections at the end of next year. I doubt that the American delegate and his team will be able to achieve this mission and force Sharon to withdraw his soldiers to their positions prior to September 2000.
One could say that by continuing to agree with Sharon and overlook his crimes will be enough to turn President Bush from the triumphant man in Iraq to a president who will fail to settle an issue that is more important, and that is the peace conflict in the Middle East. In any case, accepting a truce that puts an end to Palestinian losses is certainly better than continuing to lose.