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Hoping against hope in Sharm el-Sheikh

By Ben Wedeman

Editor's Note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news.

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SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt (CNN) -- They're making another go of it ... again.

The leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority are meeting Tuesday in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, joined by the president of Egypt and the king of Jordan, to try and iron out their mountain of differences and staunch the flow of blood.

I reported live from the same spot here in Sharm el-Sheikh four and a half years ago, in the opening days of this intifada. American, Israeli, Egyptian and Palestinian diplomats had gathered here to work out, essentially, a cease-fire.

It was at a stage when everyone thought both sides could pull back from the brink and salvage the peace process.

But the dynamics just weren't right. Before the diplomats in Sharm el-Sheikh had even wrapped up their talks, CNN's international desk called to tell me not to go back to my base in Cairo, but to head to Gaza, where fighting had been raging for days.

I had driven from Cairo overnight, and had clothing for just one day.

"Buy more clothing when you get there," the desk editor, Rob Golden, told me. "You can expense it."

As the sun set behind the jagged, beautiful hills of the Sinai, I set off in a rickety taxi toward the Taba border crossing between Egypt and Israel.

By noon the next day I was sweating in a flak jacket and helmet, crouching for cover behind a wall at the Netzarim Junction in Gaza as bullets zinged over my head.

As journalists we try to keep premonitions out of our reporting, but at the time I had a premonition that the fighting was going to go on for a long time. Alas, I was right.

The conflict went from bad to worse, and then worse again. Thousands of Palestinians and Israelis were killed in the violence. At times it seemed like it would never end.

But today there is a glimmer of hope. The dynamics, which were so clearly absent on that cool evening in Sharm el-Sheikh when I headed to Gaza in early October 2000, may finally be in place.

The Palestinians have a new leader -- Mahmoud Abbas, who has made it clear that he believes the so-called militarization of the intifada was a mistake. He wants calm and quiet, to give diplomacy a chance. Last month, reporting from the Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza on the elections that brought Abbas to power, many of the voters I spoke with said they were casting their ballots for Abbas because he would bring them peace.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- reviled throughout the Arab world as the architect of Israel's settlement policy in the West Bank and Gaza, as the man indirectly responsible for the 1982 slaughter of thousands of Palestinians in Beirut's Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps -- has staked his political fortunes on an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. He needs his fellow Israelis to support him, and that can only happen if the fighting stops.

For the first time in years, the leaders on both sides desperately need an end to the violence.

This combination has led even the pessimists to entertain the idea that peace is possible.

"It's a win-win situation," Egyptian analyst Abdul Mun'im Said of the Ahram Centre for Strategic Studies recently told me. "I think once we have a win-win situation, that is the business of ... reversing the tide, from making conflict into a peace process ... Everybody realizes that the military solution is not the solution."

But despite the high hopes, there is a long way to go before the glimmer of peace can turn into reality.

Both sides have already indicated they will announce a cease-fire in Sharm el-Sheikh. Mahmoud Abbas says he has convinced the Palestinian militants to hold their fire, and has ordered his security forces to prevent attacks against Israel. For its part, Israel says it will release up to 900 Palestinian prisoners in the coming months, and pull its forces away from Palestinian cities, beginning with Jericho.

All of these measures, though significant, will simply begin to undo some of the damage done on both sides since the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000. If all goes well, Israel and the Palestinians will still be facing the same thorny issues -- the status of Jerusalem, the right of return for Palestinian refugees -- that sparked the uprising in the first place.

And any hopes of a breakthrough could easily be shattered by a wrong move. There is fear on both sides that a suicide bombing, a killing, any sort of incident, could throw the budding diplomatic thaw into the deep freeze.

When I arrived in Sharm el-Sheikh Monday afternoon I watched as workers raised the Palestinian flag next to an Israeli flag on the road leading to the site of the summit. Such symbolism shouldn't be overemphasized, but it is important. I was reminded of when, in the fall of 1980, I walked through downtown Cairo and saw Egyptian and Israeli flags flying side-by-side to mark the first-ever visit by an Israeli president to the Egyptian capital. At the time, it seemed like peace was possible.

But as they say, impressions can be deceiving. How many times in the past few years have people in this sad region entertained the hope that somehow peace -- and some form of justice -- could be achieved, only to have their hopes dashed?

Yet again, those hopes have been revived. And once again, millions are hoping against hope that maybe, possibly, this time, those hopes will be realized.


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