For the first time in two and a half years a glimmer of hope for the peace process in the Middle East opened up yesterday at President George Bush's summit in Jordan. Standing on either side of President Bush, the Israeli and Palestinian Prime Ministers, Ariel Sharon and Abu Mazen, pledged to implement the road-map peace plan that calls for an independent Palestinian state by 2005.
"The Holy Land must be shared between the state of Palestine and the state of Israel, living at peace with each other and with every nation of the Middle East," said Mr Bush. Mr Sharon and Abu Mazen, whose real name is Mahmoud Abbas, publicly committed themselves to that vision, and shook hands. Abu Mazen repeated his promise of "an end to violence and terrorism".
Mr Sharon promised a "viable Palestinian state" and to dismantle some illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank. That was the glimmer of hope. But the odds remain against the peace process. Yesterday's summit was a highly stage-managed event, complete with a specially built bridge for the participants to walk across towards peace.
Mr Sharon and Abu Mazen said little they have not said before, and there was plenty missing from what they did say. But they stood side by side and pledged themselves to the peace process under the unforgiving desert sun, and that alone was an achievement.
But that was the easy part. The road ahead will be far more difficult. That was made clear yesterday when the most powerful Palestinian militant group, Hamas, rejected Abu Mazen's call for the militants to abandon violence, and Jewish settlers demonstrated against Mr Sharon in Jerusalem.
There were plenty of reminders too on the Red Sea coast here, where the shores are littered with the memories of failed Middle East peace initiatives. Taba, where the Oslo peace process backed by President Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton, unravelled, is only a few miles up the coast.
The peace negotiations back then were far further advanced than yesterday's talks could hope to be. Taba was about trying to hammer out a deal. Aqaba yesterday was less ambitious: the aim was to get the Israelis and Palestinians talking at the same table again.
Mr Bush announced yesterday that he is sending a new monitoring team under John Wolf, an undersecretary of State, to ensure both sides honour their obligations under the road-map.
There was no doubt whose achievement that small victory was: it belonged to a man who once seemed the least likely President of the United States to deliver peace to the people of the Middle East. As Mr Sharon and Abu Mazen leaned towards each other to shake hands, almost like two truculent children, Mr Bush could be heard saying "Good job" in approving tones.
And they would not have been standing here together were it not for Mr Bush's victory in Iraq, a victory that has the Arab regimes desperately moving to cling on to power and reluctant to stand in Mr Bush's way, and that has given Mr Bush the authority at home to dictate terms to the Israelis.
It could all unravel easily enough. Mr Bush knows that: as one Israeli adviser pointed out yesterday he is following uncannily closely in the footsteps of his father, who tried to push the Israelis into a peace deal on the back of an overwhelming victory against Saddam Hussein's Iraq only to lose a presidential election.
The stakes for the Israelis and Palestinians, after two and a half years of bloodshed without mercy that have cost thousands of lives, are far higher.
Despite Mr Bush's assurance yesterday that the Holy Land must be shared, the issue most conspicuously missing from yesterday's statements was how it will be divided.
It was in the detail that peace negotiations failed before, and it is quite clear that the Israelis and the Palestinians have very different ideas of how much land a future Palestinian state will have.
The Palestinians want all of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, including East Jerusalem. The Israelis want them to have far less: just the main Palestinian cities and population centres. Mr Sharon gave that away when he said yesterday: "It is in Israel's interest not to govern the Palestinians, but for the Palestinians to govern themselves in their own state." The issue loomed when President Bush repeated his warning of the day before, in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, that "the issue of settlements must be addressed for peace to be achieved".
And despite the excitement over Mr Sharon's pledge on settlements yesterday, he did not fully address it. He promised only to remove "unauthorised outposts". These are collections of caravans set up by extremists to seize the hilltops of the West Bank. They are easier for Mr Sharon to dismantle than official settlements, which are fully fledged towns that carve up the occupied territories, where the Palestinians want to make their state.
The "unauthorised outposts" used to be called "illegal" in Israel. All the settlements are illegal under international law, but the outposts are illegal under Israeli law as well, and essentially Mr Sharon was only pledging to enforce the law of his own country.
Mr Sharon made much of promising "territorial contiguity" for the Palestinian state yesterday - a guarantee that it will not be divided into swathes by settlements and settlers' roads - but in the past he has said that can be done with tunnels and bridges. He insists the Palestinian state be demilitarised and that Abu Mazen publicly accept it as the home of the Palestinian people - which would amount to renouncing the right of return for Palestinians who fled or were forced out in 1948 of what is now Israel, something Abu Mazen has said he can never do.
All the signs are Mr Sharon is gearing up to offer a state that falls far short of the Palestinians' expectations. Neither side delivered all that was hoped of them yesterday.
Abu Mazen did not reiterate the Palestinians' recognition of Israel's right to exist, still less recognise it as a Jewish state, as the Israelis wanted - apparently for fear it could compromise the right of return.
What he did deliver was to repeat the pledge he made to the Palestinian Parliament when he became Prime Minister: to stop the violence of the militants. "Our goal is clear and we will implement it firmly and without compromise, a complete end to violence and terrorism," he said yesterday.
Abu Mazen looked nervous at his first foray into so big an international event.
But Mr Sharon's discomfort at being here was the more evident. It is no secret that he was reluctant to come and make these commitments.
But it is also no secret either that Mr Sharon's aim is to hold on to as much land and as many settlements as he can.
Ultimately, much will rest on factors the leaders cannot control: on the attitudes of the Israeli and Palestinian people, and on whether they are able to compromise.
But as King Hussein of Jordan, the host of yesterday's summit, who has inherited his late father's eloquence, told Mr Sharon and Abu Mazen yesterday: "It's not only your people who will be watching and waiting. The eyes of the entire world will be upon you." It would be an exaggeration to say there was optimism in Aqaba yesterday. But there was a little hope.
FROM TABA TO AQABA
24 SEPTEMBER 1995
Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) sign Taba accords in Egypt giving self-rule to the Palestinians in Bethlehem, Jenin, Nablus, Qalqilya, Ramallah, Tulkarm, parts of Hebron and 450 villages, but allowing Jewish settlements to stay.
15 JANUARY 1997
Palestinians sign a deal with the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, clearing way for handover of 80 per cent of Hebron to Palestinian rule.
23 OCTOBER 1998
Yasser Arafat, Mr Netanyahu and President Bill Clinton sign Wye River deal for a phased Israeli withdrawal from 13 per cent of the West Bank in exchange for Palestinian security measures. Mr Netanyahu freezes the deal two months later, saying Palestinians failed to meet commitments.
13 SEPTEMBER 1999
Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, signs a deal with Mr Arafat agreeing to carry out a modified version of the Wye River deal, setting 13 September 2000 as a deadline for peace.
11 JULY 2000
Mr Clinton invites Mr Barak and Mr Arafat to an intensive summit at Camp David but talks end in crisis.
30 APRIL 2003
A road-map for peace by the US, EU, United Nations and Russia is given to Israelis and Palestinians, calling for a Palestinian state in West Bank and Gaza Strip by 2005. Palestinians endorse the plan.
17 MAY 2003
Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, and the new Palestinian Prime Minister, Abu Mazen, meet, and a week later Mr Sharon's cabinet approves the road-map
4 JUNE 2003
Mr Bush meets Mr Sharon and Abu Mazen in Aqaba at their first three-way summit.Reuse content