If a picture is worth a thousand words, the image of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas reaching across the table to clasp hands with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon speaks volumes. Abbas looked almost professorial, with his horn-rimmed glasses and conservative business suit and tie, in stark contrast to his predecessor, Yasser Arafat. Gone were Arafat's trademark stubble, desert fatigues and keffiyeh, the checkered Arab headscarf that became all the rage among campus leftists a few years ago. And the sartorial symbolism is more than superficial.
Arafat's garb reminded everyone that he was more comfortable wielding an AK-47 than he was signing peace agreements. No matter what Arafat said with Western cameras rolling or in the presence of Bill Clinton -- who hosted Arafat 13 times, more often than any other foreign visitor to the White House during Clinton's eight years in office -- Arafat remained a street-fighting thug to his last gasp. With Arafat dead and Palestinians allowed to pick their own leader, which they did just weeks ago when they elected Abbas, perhaps peace is finally possible.
This week's meeting in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, is the first between the Israeli head of state and the leader of the Palestinian people in nearly five years. During most of that time, the Intifada, the Palestinian uprising which has killed more than 4,000 Israelis and Palestinians over the last four years, made it impossible for any talk of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Now, Abbas has pledged to "cease all acts of violence against all Israelis everywhere," while Sharon has promised in return to "cease all its military activity against all Palestinians everywhere." It was the kind of all-encompassing commitment on both sides unimaginable in the Arafat era.
Anyone who watched the televised summit, hosted by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah II of Jordan, immediately grasped the difference between this and previous meetings of the two parties when Arafat was at the helm. In October 2000, Arafat met at Sharm el Sheik with then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. But President Bill Clinton ran the show during that round of talks, with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan present to give his imprimatur to the meeting. Nothing positive happened at the 2000 confab, despite Clinton's involvement. As The New York Times reported at the time, when the talks ended "all [Clinton] could do was read an agreement that neither Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister, nor Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, was willing to sign, to read aloud or to answer questions about."
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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