One more step down the long and obstacle-strewn path to a just peace

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The Independent Online

There was, in the end, no fanfare. The friendly handshake across the table between Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas was cordiality itself. But as they read their statements, the expressions of the men ­ the king, the prime minister and the two presidents, one without a state ­ ranged from impassive to scowling.

There was, in the end, no fanfare. The friendly handshake across the table between Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas was cordiality itself. But as they read their statements, the expressions of the men ­ the king, the prime minister and the two presidents, one without a state ­ ranged from impassive to scowling.

The low-key nature of the public proceedings was appropriate. It is not to underestimate the importance of both sides calling a halt to four bloody years of a conflict that has cost more than 4,000 lives, to recognise that in the sweep of history this is just one, painfully reversible, step down a long and obstacle-strewn path to a just and lasting peace.

If Mr Abbas seemed just a shade more comfortable yesterday than Mr Sharon it was understandable. He has scored a considerable success, one that may well increase his standing among Palestinians as a man who can influence events.

True, there was no joint declaration, but Mr Sharon had been reluctant to make any formal, publicannouncement of a halt to military action. Whether his decision to do so had anything to do with this week's visit by Condoleezza Rice ­ Israeli officials suggest it didn't ­ his statement was less grudging and equivocal than the advance briefing had suggested it would be.

Mr Abbas has got further and faster than most expected after his election on 9 January. If Mr Sharon's plan to withdraw 7,500 Jewish settlers from Gaza goes ahead on time ­ and especially if the prospect he held out of co-ordinating it with the Palestinians is realised ­ then Mr Abbas and his strategy cannot fail to reap some of the benefit. There will beinternational money and help for Gaza's ravaged economy.

And though it was conceived long before Arafat's death as a unilateral step, the first reverse of the relentless settlement growth in occupied Palestinian territories will have happened on Mr Abbas's watch.

The dispatch of US General William Ward as a "security co-ordinator" may help too. Mr Abbas does not need ominous muttering from Hamas to remind of him of the fragility of truces. But General Ward's presence gives the US an important stake in this ceasefire and will remindIsrael that the US wants Mr Abbas to succeed.

Mr Abbas, facing internal political challenges, needs more than that. First, he needs the "confidence building measures" that Mr Sharon spoke of to have an impact on the lives of Palestinians. That may mean Israel relenting on its determination not to release some long-serving prisoners "with blood on their hands".

It will certainly mean the dismantling of checkpoints and closures, which bring economic and social misery. But equally it will mean the maintenance of political momentum. And here there was little encouragement for Mr Abbas this week.

Based on its inclusion in phase one of the road map, the Palestinians see the issue of "dismantling the terrorist infrastructure" and disarming the factions as linked to, and facilitated by, a political process. The more the Palestinian state begins to take shape on the horizon, the easier it will be to fulfil that obligation. The subtext of Mr Sharon's approach is that it is a precondition of the road-map process starting.

The contradiction in the US position appears to be this: Ms Rice and President Bush genuinely want Mr Abbas, and the road map, to succeed. Whether in a Freudian slip or not, Ms Rice seemed to contrast the positions of Mr Sharon and Mr Abbas when she said on Monday "we know" that the Palestinians accept the road map and that Mr Sharon "has said" that he does so.

But at the same time the US also shows little sign of wanting to undermine the belief of many around Mr Sharon that "final status" issues can be put off ­ perhaps for years. That could deprive Mr Abbas of the very momentum he needs.

That said, Mr Abbas has one other factor going for him as he struggles to keep the political agenda alive. Mr Sharon must know that if Mr Abbas is allowed to fail, it will puncture a central Israeli tenet over the past four years. For then it would appear that it was not Yasser Arafat who had been the problem after all.

THE ROAD MAP...

The road map provides for a "final and comprehensive settlement" of the conflict by 2005.

* The Palestinians to cease violence immediately and unconditionally.

* International conference to be convened by the quartet (UN, US, EU, Russia) to support Palestinian economic recovery and launch process leading to Palestinian state.

* Revival of talks on issues such as water resources, environment, economic development, refugees, and arms control.

* New constitution for democratic, independent Palestinian state. Further elections to follow approval of constitution.

* Creation of independent Palestinian state, launched by international conference.

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