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Historic agreement, but many challenges ahead

Palestinian President Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Sharon during their meeting at Sharm el-Sheikh
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proclaimed a formal end to more than four years of bloodshed at the summit in Egypt.Moshe Milner / Israeli Government Press Office via Reuters
/ Source: NBC News

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to a cease-fire in a historic summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. NBC News’ Martin Fletcher reports from Sharm el-Sheikh on the agreement and the many challenges that lie ahead in order to ensure a lasting peace.

Q: What is the significance of today’s agreement?

Fletcher: It’s huge, if it’s actually implemented. After four years of brutal fighting, with 4,000 dead and many more thousands wounded on both sides, imagine if you are Israeli or Palestinian today.

Suddenly you can walk in the streets without getting blown up if you are Israeli, or without the fear of getting on a bus or sending your kids to school.

And if you are a Palestinian, suddenly these roadblocks that have made your life miserable over the last few years, they’ll be lifted. If you’re a Palestinian militant who has been fighting Israel, now you’ll be able to walk in the streets, instead of hiding, and you can live with your family again

The impact on the daily lives of Israelis and Palestinians obviously will be huge. As I stress, if this is implemented. With all the fine words and the high hopes of this summit, and the very encouraging statements from the Palestinians and the Israelis, none of the details have been worked out. These are just statements and not even joint statements.

The details of how the Palestinians will actually stop the militants from attacking Israelis have not been worked out yet. The Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas still has to sell this to Hamas and to the Islamic Jihad. He has to persuade them to actually do what he tells them to do. It isn’t clear that they are actually going to obey him. They may in the short term, but how long will that last for?

Hamas has said that they are going to look very carefully at what the deal is, what Israel does, and then they’ll decide whether to support their prime minister or not. So, that could be a big challenge to Abbas.

The Israeli army will presumably carry out all of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s commitments. But, when the next big phase turns up — which is the withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza — we already know there’s going to be a huge problem then because the settlers have already begun their campaign to fight against the withdrawal. For instance, in the last couple of days, there has been an outbreak of graffiti in Israel — in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem — graffiti of death threats against Sharon.

So, both sides have big challenges before they can implement the steps that they promised today. But, of course, if they do implement them, this will have a huge impact on the lives of Palestinians and Israelis.

Q: With no written agreement to the cease-fire, how do they plan to implement it?

First of all, the fact that it’s not written just means that they decided to go ahead before they had all the details worked out. So now, various committees are going to be set up. 

For instance, Israel already said that it was going to release 900 Palestinian prisoners from its jails. The Palestinians are very unhappy with that number. They want a lot more, because, I think there are at least 5,000 to 6,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails (maybe even more). So Palestinians want a lot more released, and they’ve established a committee to work out the details of that.   

Other committees will be working on how to ensure security cooperation between Israeli troops and Palestinian police.

The Palestinians now need to work out exactly how they will get their militants to stop attacking Israel. They’ve got to work out whether they will collect the guns from the militants or whether the militants will simply agree not to carry the guns in the street.

Then they have to see if any deal that is worked out, whether that deal is acceptable to Israel.

So there are still many details that need to be worked out, and various committees will start work immediately on those. 

Ultimately, if all goes as planned and outlined today, then the next step would be to resume peace talks within the framework of the “road map.” That would also continue the progress toward peace in a very clear and delineated way.

But, again, there are so many obstacles; one can imagine so many pitfalls along the way, that it’s sort of hard to see it happening.  But, this is a great challenge to both sides. This really is history today.

Q: Are the summit and agreement just a further sign of the incredible momentum to get the peace plan back on track since Arafat’s death?

Yes. First of all, what today’s agreement shows is that America and Israel were right when they said that Yasser Arafat was an obstacle to peace.

Abbas has only been president for a month, and already they’ve achieved this breakthrough. That shows that the passing of Arafat was critical to moving the process forward.

Abbas for years has been against violence, saying that it’s bad for the Palestinian cause. So, since he was elected president, he has very quickly implemented his own plan, which is to stop the violence and resume peace talks. But, again, the challenge is whether or not the agreements that were made today will stick. 

Q: How significant is U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s invitation to both Abbas and Sharon to the White House in the coming months?

It is very important. Clearly, it’s a pat on the back in one sense, because you don’t just go to the White House for tea and cake. You come away with lots of money and commitments from the Americans to help the process.

And of course, each side wants the same commitment. The Palestinians want the American commitment to pressure Israel. And Israelis wants the American commitment to pressure the Palestinians.

The Palestinian complaint was always that the Americans were no longer an honest broker, that Bush favored the Israelis. That was under Arafat. But now, under Abbas, the Israelis are noticing that actually, the American administration is warming up considerably to the Palestinians, and they are worried about that.

The invitations to Washington reflect Bush’s commitment to seeing this peace process through. That was also reflected by Condoleezza Rice’s visit here a couple days ago in which she said that both sides have to make tough decisions in order to implement the road map to peace.

This all reflects a renewed American commitment to making a Palestinian and Israeli peace come true.

Again, whether it works or not depends really on the militants on both sides.

The other thing to throw into the equation is that it’s not only a matter of the militants in Israel and Palestine, but also the question of Hezbollah in south Lebanon, which is backed by Syria and Iran and who have committed themselves to destroying any agreement that’s reached through violence. So, that’s another challenge that the Palestinians and Israelis have to face — pressure from outside.

Finally, there is one thing that I thought was very significant in Sharon’s speech. Sharon said, “We in Israel have had to painfully wake up from our dreams.” That’s very significant.

Then he went on to say, “You, too, have to abandon an unrealistic dream” to the Palestinians.

And that really is the essence of the whole story — that each side has to give up its dreams,  the myths — and grapple with reality if they want to achieve peace.