RAY SUAREZ: Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas, the newly elected president of the Palestinian Authority, will declare an end to more than four years of fighting when they meet tomorrow in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Officials from both sides said the truce deal had been worked out in pre-summit talks.
That announcement came as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrapped up her first official visit to the area. Calling this a "moment of opportunity," Rice named a U.S. Army general to act as security coordinator between Palestinians and Israelis.
RAY SUAREZ: For more on these developments, we turn to Newsweek's Jerusalem correspondent, Dan Ephron. Dan, welcome.
Does Rice's visit, the new secretary of state, constitute an active return of the United States to Middle East diplomacy?
DAN EPHRON: Well, I think the Palestinians certainly hope that it does. And I think it probably does. It's a bigger sign than anything we've seen, I would say, in the past 18 months that the Americans are now willing to engage.
If you recall, it was in September of 2003 when this very same Mahmoud Abbas stepped down as the Palestinian prime minister, and from that stage on, the Americans really washed their hands of this thing.
There have been no regular envoys. And this is, I think, the first visit by a secretary of state from the United States since then.
RAY SUAREZ: What is Lt. Gen. William Ward, the new security coordinator, going to do?
DAN EPHRON: Well, I think that's one of the interesting things that has emerged from Secretary Rice's visit here. In the past, I think for the most part the United States has sent troubleshooters who deal with diplomacy, who deal with politics, who go back and forth between Jerusalem and Ramallah carrying messages and trying to bridge political issues.
In this case, the U.S. has appointed a security coordinator who will probably remain primarily on the Palestinian side and help the Palestinians reconstitute their police force.
I think what this says is that the United States is lining itself more or less up with what Israel has asked for, which is that this process, at least in the coming months, be much more security oriented than political; that is to say, that the first step is that Palestinians have to get their police force back in order, and not only come to a cease-fire with these groups, as apparently they have, but actually move ahead and start dismantling some of these militant groups.
RAY SUAREZ: Will Lt. Gen. Ward be welcomed more by one side than the other? Was this appointment something that Israelis or Palestinians wanted more than the other?
DAN EPHRON: It's hard to say. I don't think that the Palestinians will necessarily turn him away or be unwelcoming. I think it does say that what the Israelis wanted, the Israelis got.
The Israelis have talked all along throughout this process since Yasser Arafat died that if there is going to be a resumption of some negotiation or a return to the road map, to that U.S.-backed peace plan, that it has to start with security measures.
For the Israelis, that means getting Palestinians to deploy both in the West Bank and Gaza, to get their police force back in order, and getting them to fight these groups that have carried out much of the violence over the last four years. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, has talked about a cease-fire. He's talked about co-opting these militants.
I think what the Israelis want and what they're hoping this security coordinator from the United States will help achieve is actually something further, actually dismantling these groups.
RAY SUAREZ: Mahmoud Abbas is still pretty early in his tenure as president of the PA, has he really gotten his arms around the security structure yet? Does he have the clout, the authority to hold up his end of the cease-fire?
DAN EPHRON: Well, I think those are two separate questions. I don't think he's gotten himself around the security structure. I think there are changes he talked about making during his campaign about consolidating, about renewing.
But I think the matter of a mandate is something else. Mahmoud Abbas ran on a pledge to stop the intifada, and he was elected by a large majority. And I think in that respect, many Palestinians, including groups that are opposed to a cease-fire with Israel -- even Hamas, this Islamic group -- I think has some sense that this is the will of the people, that most Palestinians are tired of this violence, and that their voice has spoken in electing Mahmoud Abbas.
And I think there's a tendency anyway to let that go forward for the time being.
RAY SUAREZ: That soon-to-be-announced cease-fire has gotten a lot of the attention, but what else is on the agenda for Sharm el-Sheikh? What else do the two sides have to talk about?
DAN EPHRON: Well, one of the interesting things... first of all, this has been carefully choreographed. I think that's in part true because there have been other summits -- certainly many summits between Israelis and Palestinians over the years, and even other summits during these four and a half years of violence.
I think the two sides wanted to make sure that when they got there, they had all their t's crossed and their i's dotted. And I think in some respects they do. The language of this declaration of cease-fire has been laid out carefully.
But I think another significant aspect of the summit is the fact that President Mubarak and King Abdullah of Egypt and Jordan are there, and they're there with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the Israeli leader, who was really a pariah in the Arab world for much of the past 20 years. I think in some respects this is the first time the Arab world, or part of the Arab world, is giving Ariel Sharon legitimacy.
RAY SUAREZ: Why isn't Secretary Rice going to the conference? She's been in the neighborhood. She's been holding news conferences, been photographed with heads of government. This would seem to be the logical next step, no?
DAN EPHRON: I think you're right on the face of things, but I think the United States has watched this thing happen over the last months, these contacts between Israelis and Palestinians -- really the first substantive contacts in a very long time -- without necessarily being involved.
And I think for the United States, there's some advantage to letting Israelis and Palestinians work this thing through, inasmuch as the two sides are sitting down and talking about the right things. So inasmuch as that has happened over the last month, I think Secretary Rice and generally the Bush administration has been happy to let this thing go just between Israelis and Arabs.
I think another issue is that this is really President Mubarak's show, Egyptian President Mubarak's show. And I think there was a sense that if Secretary Rice was there, or someone else from the administration, that they would steal the limelight from President Mubarak.
RAY SUAREZ: Dan Ephron, from Newsweek magazine, thanks for being with us.
DAN EPHRON: Thank you.