RAY SUAREZ: As cameras flashed to capture the historic moment, the top leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority reached across the table and shook hands for the first time in more than four years.
The face-to-face meeting came at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, and was hosted by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, made separate but similar statements announcing the cease- fire deal.
ARIEL SHARON (translated): Today in my meeting with Chairman Abbas, we have agreed that the Palestinians will cease all acts of violence against Israelis everywhere and at the same time Israel will cease all its military activity against Palestinians everywhere. Starting from today, a new era of peace and hope will begin.
MAHMOUD ABBAS (translated): We have agreed with Prime Minister Sharon today to stop all forms of violence against Israelis and Palestinians, wherever they are. The calm that will be witnessed by our territories from today is the beginning of a new era, the beginning of peace.
RAY SUAREZ: As part of the deal, Israel will hand over control of five West Bank towns within three weeks and promises to release 500 Palestinian prisoners. In the more than four years since this intifada began, about 3,350 Palestinians and some 1,000 Israelis have died in armed clashes and suicide bombings.
Israelis expanded settlements and tightened their occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and began building a barrier through the West Bank. And Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was confined to his compound in Ramallah.
Then last fall, Arafat died, paving the way for the elections that ushered Abbas into power. In the Palestinian territories, there were optimistic comments on today's news.
SPOKESMAN: It was a very good conference, and I was very happy to hear those speeches. And we hope that we'll see changes soon on the ground.
RAY SUAREZ: Israeli popular reaction often mirrored that sentiment.
SPOKESMAN (translated): I can start to see the light at the end of the tunnel. We have someone to talk to. The leaders will sit down together, they will talk, and they will come to understandings and agreements. The most important thing is to stop the cycle of bloodshed, this war.
RAY SUAREZ: Speaking in Paris, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to peace in the Middle East, while letting the Mideast parties take the lead.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: The United States and the parties have no illusions about the difficulties ahead. There are deep divisions to overcome. Success is not assured, but America is resolute. This is the best chance for peace that we are likely to see for some years to come, and we are acting to help Israelis and Palestinians seize this chance. President Bush is committed. I am personally committed. We must all be committed to seizing this chance.
RAY SUAREZ: President Bush has separately invited both Prime Minister Sharon and President Abbas to Washington for meetings this spring.
RAY SUAREZ: For more, we're joined by Amjad Atallah, a former legal adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organization; and Amos Guiora, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Israeli defense forces. As a military lawyer, he was involved in several Israeli- Palestinian agreements. He is now a visiting professor of law at the Case Western Reserve University School of law.
Professor Guiora, given everything that's happened over the last four years, the missed opportunities, the killing, the dying, how important is today's agreement?
AMOS GUIORA: I think that today is a very important first step. I think the fact that the two leaders have met in Egypt in the presence of Mubarak and the king is clearly a very important first step. I think the road ahead of us is very long, but I think that it is a clear importance in the first step and today was a very important first step. That having been said, not only is the road long ahead of us but also the proof is going to be in the pudding with the Palestinian's Authority to fight terrorism. But I think one can clearly sound here a note of cautious optimism.
RAY SUAREZ: Amjad Atallah, how do you see it?
AMJAD ATALLAH: Well, I agree it's an important first step. The problem isn't for the first step. The problem is that they're both headed in perhaps different directions. The Israeli goal on this is to end disengagement successfully. And past that, there's really no road ahead.
The Palestinians are hoping that this is leading to an end of the conflict with Israel -- final status, a conclusion to final status issues. If the two parties disagree from the beginning that they're moving towards an end of the conflict, they may find a rude awakening not too far down the road.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, help me understand better what you mean by Israelis want to end disengagement successfully. How is that different from what the Palestinians want?
AMJAD ATALLAH: The Israeli government is proposing to leave the Gaza strip, which is about 5.8 percent of the occupied Palestinian territory. They're also proposing to leave about 18 percent of the northern West Bank. And this is the disengagement plan that Ariel Sharon is struggling to keep alive and to push forward in the Israeli Knesset. That plan doesn't actually end with the conclusion of the conflict. It simply redeploys Israeli forces outside of those areas.
Palestinians are hoping, and Israelis perhaps as well, are hoping that this will lead to an end of occupation. But it won't lead to the end of the occupation of the majority of the Palestinian territory. If the Palestinians don't move forward on that length -- if there is no political process designed to take us to the end of the game, then we might have a flare-up once again.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor, is Amjad Atallah right, that beyond the short-term goal of ending the shooting that you're talking about two people looking at a very different set of circumstances?
AMOS GUIORA: I think first of all there is great importance attached to the act of disengagement, even if we begin with Gaza and parts of the northern Shamron. I think that down the road that the long-term political intention of the prime minister, at least as I understand it, is to continue with disengagement. That being said, it's going to be a step after a step process. I think there is a long-term goal here.
I think that in terms of the ultimate goal, I think there is no doubt that the Palestinians are waiting for the day that there'll be a Palestinian state. There are clearly very difficult issues that we are all facing. But I think again as I said earlier, the fact that these leaders met today, the fact that there was a positive outcome out of the summit, the fact that there was a positive atmosphere there, I think it needs to be understood that this is going to be a long process.
There'll be ups and there will be downs but the important thing is to get the process going once again. There's no doubt that there were incredible missed opportunities over the course of the past four years. The moment that Arafat left the scene we see the result. Abbas was elected less than a month ago, a month ago tomorrow, and here we are already with a summit behind us. I think that's the way to view it.
In fact, the president of the United States has invited both Sharon and Abbas to come to Washington. Those are critical steps. Does that mean that it is going to resolve itself overnight? Of course not. One must be patient. One must understand the process and there will be a process here and I think that's the way to view it.
RAY SUAREZ: Amjad Atallah, is Abu Mazen, Mahmoud Abbas, in the more difficult situation right now because he can't necessarily control all the people he's assuring are no longer going to attack Israelis?
AMJAD ATALLAH: Well, I think he is in more a difficult position but I think he'll rise to the challenge. The important thing for him is that he actually has been elected. He has a mandate. And the reason that the majority of Palestinians elected him is because he was standing for a non-violent approach to resisting the occupation.
That increases his leverage with Hamas and other organizations that have wanted to militarize the intifada. As long as he has that popular mandate, and as long as the coming elections for the municipal elections in April and the parliamentary elections in July reinforce that mandate, then he will be able to sustain the cease-fire indefinitely.
RAY SUAREZ: But Hamas has quite publicly said that it has freedom of movement, free agency as far as it's concerned, that it is not party to this agreement with the Israeli government.
AMJAD ATALLAH: Hamas is effectively negotiating with President Abbas when it says that; it's not negotiating with Israel. Hamas has already made public statements in the past it will abide by any cease-fire as long as Israelis are no longer targeting Palestinians, and in particular Hamas activists.
What Hamas is really looking for us to make sure that its own leadership, its own activists are no longer attacked or targeted for assassination. As long as Palestinians are not attacked, they will abide by the cease-fire. They've made a strategic decision to turn their military -- what they believe their military gains, vis-à-vis the Palestinian Authority, into political power. And they're prepared I think to move into the political mainstream.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Guiora, there has been a tremendous change in tone at the top of the Israeli political system toward the Palestinian Authority. Are they willing to wait and see on the security assurances coming now from the PA?
AMOS GUIORA: I think first of all the fact that the government decided the other day to put on hold targeted killings, and to enable thereby the Palestinian Authority to deal with Palestinian terrorism is clearly sending a message, a very strong message to the Palestinian Authority saying that we are indeed going to give you an opportunity to fight Palestinian terrorism.
I think that the fact that the government is going to enable the Palestinian Authority to do that, again, in terms of step after step in a process, is a very important message to the Palestinians. And my read of the situation is, if my read is correct, Abbas understands that there is indeed this window of opportunity that he has got to seize that window of opportunity. Regarding Hamas, they must understand that if they continue with the kinds of terrorist attacks that they have done in the past, that's going to derail the process and therefore in many ways the burden indeed is on Abbas and it appears to me that he will be given room to operate from the government, which as I say, has decided to, at least for now to shelf the targeted killings.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor, there was no high ranking American delegation prominent in the photos coming out of Sharm-el Sheikh today, but you did see a lot of President Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan. What is the significance of that?
AMOS GUIORA: I think there is tremendous significance of that. If indeed Mubarak can be engaged in this process, given the fact that Egypt is a major player in the Middle East both in terms of its economy, its political power and also obviously its army. I think that it will be very important to have this process go hand in hand with him.
I think frankly the fact that the king was there is also important. But there's no doubt that an engaged Mubarak can only have long term significance. You know, in many ways, there are tremendous opportunities here for all sides. If, indeed, at the end of the day we have an end to the conflict, there's great economic opportunity here. It may really be time down the road for a new Middle East. And I think that all of us who have been involved in the peace processes over the course of the past, as I have for the past ten or eleven years, are waiting for the day that there really will be this opportunity both on the political level and economic level involving all nations, all peoples and all nations in the region.
The fact the United States was not prominently there, I think that from my perspective, and this is my read of it, is fine. I think it needs to be regional. But as I said earlier, the president of the United States has invited both Sharon and Abbas to the White House. That, too, is very significant.
RAY SUAREZ: And incidentally it was Ariel Sharon's first visit as prime minister to Egyptian territory. How does this change things for the Palestinians, the prominent role of Egypt and Jordan?
AMJAD ATALLAH: The prominent role of Egypt and Jordan was always a given on the Palestinian side. They were always involved on our side of the negotiations, either informally or formally. What we're more concerned about is the role of the United States. Right now you have a position where President Bush has made it clear that U.S. policy will be based on democracy and freedom.
The Palestinians can provide the democracy part for Palestinians, but they can't provide the freedom part. The freedom part comes from the Israeli end of occupation and a change in U.S. policy. Right now Israel is negotiating with the United States where illegal settlements can continue being built. They're negotiating with the United States where the wall can continue being built inside occupied Palestinian territory. But they're not negotiating with Palestinians.
If the United States doesn't actually play a role, a more forceful role in the negotiations, if it doesn't come to the table as well, it's going to be very difficult to sustain a peace process.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, if the violence stops for some period, and that's always been the problem over the last four years, keeping the violence from rekindling, what's the next step? What do Palestinians and Israelis need to see from each other? We'll start with you.
AMJAD ATALLAH: I believe the Palestinians are looking for some form of intention that the political process will restart. At the moment, the Israelis are not only telling us now's not the time for permanent negotiation status. They're telling us that we can't tell you when or if there will ever be a time to restart permanent status negotiations. That doesn't create sustainability in the cease-fire track which is only one small element of this.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Guiora, how do you respond to that, the idea that Palestinians need to see progress on their side too, in order to keep their own hard men at bay?
AMOS GUIORA: I think first of all the fact that within a few weeks, according to the report we just heard, the idea they'll be leaving a number of cities in the West Bank. In a number of months, there will be disengagement from the Gaza strip and northern Shamron. Those are significant steps. Again, it's all part of the process. Once indeed, I think, from the perspective of the government, it will appear to be there has been an end or at least a significant move towards an anti-Palestinian terrorism, we can begin negotiating.
The negotiating process, and Amjad has been involved in this in the past, is going to be long and arduous and tedious. It'll be very slow. As I said earlier, there will be ups and downs. But I think one needs to view this with the glass half full and not half empty. Today was a very significant first step. The process has begun now. The United States obviously plays a key role in this. The two parties need to speak one to the other. And I think that's what we saw today when Sharon and Abbas shook hands in Sharm-el Sheikh today, I think there's great significance to that.
Again, you asked earlier, regarding Mubarak, it was very important that he was there. Does that mean that we are going to resolve all the problems overnight? No. But is there a process beginning here with that window of opportunity -- the answer to that question is yes and it must be maximized by both parties.
RAY SUAREZ: And quickly, Amjad, where are the pitfalls in the near term?
AMJAD ATALLAH: Well, we've got to make sure first of all that the violence doesn't restart. That's obvious. The Israelis and the Palestinians have to make sure that the civilians -- that all violence stops, and in particular that civilians are no longer targeted by either party. But more importantly, there needs to be a vision set forward as to where this is headed. If we're walking down the road together hand in hand, we'd better be walking towards the same direction.
RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, thanks a lot.