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."
But this week's summit seemed different. Of course the players had changed on both sides of the table. Not only was Arafat gone, but the hard-liner Sharon had replaced the moderate Barak -- yet it is Sharon who has pledged unilaterally to withdraw settlements from Gaza and parts of the West Bank. And the United States, wisely, decided to stay away and let the parties talk directly.
Still, it is too early to declare Sharm el Sheik II an unqualified success. The symbols were right -- down to the flying of the Israeli flag, something missing at the 2000 Sharm el Sheik meetings. However, symbols only go so far. Abbas has the more difficult task and the most to prove. Sharon has announced that Israel will pull back its troops from Bethlehem, Jericho and Ramallah, and lift roadblocks that make it difficult for Palestinians to travel to jobs. The Israeli public will back Sharon, so long as a new wave of violence does not ensue.
But Abbas must shut down the terrorists who operate within his territory -- especially Hamas. The terrorist organization has already said it is not bound to honor the truce declared Tuesday, which a Hamas spokesman described as a unilateral declaration by the Palestinian Authority. If Abbas fails to crack down on the terrorists, all the earnest words and brave symbolism in the world won't bring peace to this troubled region.