The Sharm el-Sheikh summit has raised the hope that a new window of opportunity in Israeli-Palestinian relations has been opened. After four and a half years of mutual violence, which has caused great suffering to both peoples, we now have a chance to return to the diplomatic track.
The renewal of talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials creates the possibility that the Gaza disengagement plan will be a coordinated step, rather than a unilateral one. If this is successfully carried out, within the framework of the Quartet Road Map, it can lay the foundations for progress toward a final-status agreement that will be based on the 1967 borders, with the possibility of a mutually agreed upon land swap, a division of Jerusalem and a satisfactory solution to the refugee problem.
The public opinion polls that are discussed in this issue indicate that there is a clear majority of both Israelis and Palestinians who are tired of the violence, support a two-state solution and want to move forward toward a negotiated settlement.
However, to ensure continued public support in both communities, they must feel direct benefits from the new atmosphere, otherwise known as the "fruits of peace," as soon as possible.
The Palestinians have a number of priorities that have to be satisfied. One of the first is the freeing of political prisoners. A fascinating evening organized by Physicians for Human Rights in Tel Aviv emphasized the role that the freeing of prisoners can play in a peace process. This message was delivered by participants in the meeting, such as Palestinian Minister for Prisoner Affairs Hisham Abdel Razek, who spent 21 years in an Israeli prison, a former member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), who spent nine years in a British prison; and Benjamin Pogrund, the former deputy editor of the South African Rand Daily Mail. Other issues of primary importance for the Palestinians are an end to the targeted killings, a settlement freeze and the easing of travel restrictions caused by the proliferation of checkpoints in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Continued public support for a cessation of violence and negotiations depends on a Palestinian perception that there is a significant improvement in their daily lives.
On the Israeli side, the issue of primary importance is security, an end to the suicide attacks and the firing of Qassam rockets at Israeli targets, like the southern town of Sderot. At the public event in Tel Aviv, Pogrund emphasized that the ANC policy of carrying out its struggle in a nonviolent manner helped to build white public support, even among the Afrikaners, for a resolution to the conflict.
Forceful, determined and creative leadership on both sides can ensure that these issues are dealt with in a constructive manner. If the Gaza disengagement is carried out, it will create a momentum that will carry over to the West Bank.
To ensure that this new atmosphere moves from words to deeds, it is essential that the international community be an active facilitator of the process. This includes the regional players like Sharm el-Sheikh summit host Egypt, Jordan, other Arab countries, and the Quartet (the United States, the EU, Russia and the UN).
The United States, as the world's only superpower, has a particularly important role to play. President George W. Bush has declared that a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the creation of a viable Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel will be one of the primary goals of his second administration. For this to become a reality, the U.S. administration will have to play a more active role in conflict resolution than it did during its first four years. International facilitation of the process should include mediation, financing and monitoring of the process in the field.
The current window of opportunity is not open-ended. If the Israeli and Palestinian publics do not experience progress in their respective situations, frustration and disappointment will lead to a renewal of the cycle of violence, with potentially tragic consequences for all.