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Leaders End With Bold, Careful Words

Summit is capped by speeches offering powerful declarations and vague details.

June 05, 2003|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

AQABA, Jordan — In the annals of Middle East diplomacy, few words have been as painstakingly chosen as those uttered Wednesday by President Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan's King Abdullah II.

With no less a goal than bringing a comprehensive peace to the Middle East -- a quest that has frustrated generations of statesmen before them -- the four leaders ended their groundbreaking gathering here with brief speeches whose language was carefully limned to mix bold declaration with deliberate ambiguity, to express fervent hopes even while baring the most elemental of fears.

The men -- their sober, dark suits incongruous against the vacation-postcard backdrop of palm trees and blue water -- used precisely the same phrase to emphasize the common nature of their goal: two states, Israeli and Palestinian, living side by side in peace and security.

But in order to paper over deep divisions as to whether that end could be achieved, the leaders addressed certain points in only the vaguest of terms, or not at all -- what the territorial outlines of a future Palestinian state might be, how violent militant groups could be brought to heel.

For all the complexities underpinning almost every aspect of the conflict, some of the utterances made on the sun-splashed beach were powerful in their simplicity.

"The armed intifada must end," said Abbas, who was one of the early proponents of the view that Palestinians would bring only suffering on their own heads by rising up militarily against Israel.

"It is in Israel's interest not to govern the Palestinians, but for the Palestinians to govern themselves in their own state," said Sharon, who shocked his compatriots to the core last month by referring to Israeli military rule over the Palestinian populace as an "occupation."

In some cases, even the briefest of phrases was freighted with meaning -- particularly Bush's expression of U.S. support for "a vibrant Jewish state."

Behind the scenes, Israel had pressed hard for an explicit reference to Israel's Jewish character. Palestinian officials said they feared that such a description could be used as a means to preempt any discussion in upcoming negotiations as to whether Palestinians who fled or were driven from homes inside what is now Israel could ever return.

Israelis say the return of millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants would swamp them demographically and render meaningless the founding principle of Israel as a Jewish homeland.

Israeli officials pronounced themselves satisfied by Bush's reference to the Jewish state, but even so, Sharon's office issued a clarifying statement saying that a Palestinian state -- not Israel -- would be the home of the Palestinian diaspora.

Although the lives of few ordinary Israelis and Palestinians have been untouched by 32 months of bloodletting, Sharon and Abbas refrained from speaking about the sheer ugliness of a conflict that has killed nearly 800 Israelis and more than 2,300 Palestinians. It was left to King Abdullah, who has a neighbor's nearness to the fighting but an observer's remove from it, to chide the Palestinians for "blowing up buses" and the Israelis for killing Palestinians and demolishing homes.

Abbas called for an easing of the Palestinians' plight but deliberately framed the matter in quotidian terms. Rather than making a larger denunciation of Israeli military tactics, he spoke of the small daily hardships of ordinary people in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"Palestinians must be able to move about, go to their jobs and schools, visit their families and conduct a normal life," he said.

Even with both sides striving for clarity in what they said, the speechmaking was barely over before the two sides put contradictory spins on the way some matters were worded.

Sharon referred in his remarks to Israel's understanding of "the importance of territorial contiguity" to a viable Palestinian state.

The Palestinians, who fear that their state might consist of pockets of territory separated by Jewish settlements and the roads leading to them, said they would use the contiguity principle to push for the evacuation of some large settlements.

The Israeli prime minister also promised to begin removing unauthorized outposts that some bands of settlers have set up on West Bank hilltops.

But he said nothing to suggest that any existing city-sized settlement would be uprooted -- although the Palestinians consider all the settlements to be illegal entities.

The ceremonial formality of the leaders' statements belied what participants in the day's talks said was an atmosphere at times notable for its informality.

At one point, Sharon's hawkish defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, had a chatty tete-a-tete with the top Palestinian security official, Mohammed Dahlan.

Alan Baker, a legal advisor to Israel's Foreign Ministry, described the mood as relaxed but professional, with the occasional joke being told.

Summits like this one once provided a place for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to bask in the international spotlight. In the speeches Wednesday, however, none of the leaders, including Abbas, made so much as a mention of his name.

Also unmentioned by name in the public statements were militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Abbas has been trying to reach a negotiated accord with the militant groups. But in his message, he sounded what appeared to be a warning not to try to derail the nascent peace process with suicide bombings or other attacks.

"Our national future is at stake," he said, "and no one will be allowed to jeopardize it."

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