After peace summit, task is turning words into deeds

WASHINGTON, D.C. — When diplomats from 29 countries gathered here to follow up on last month's "Summit of the Peacemakers," they began a daunting task: transforming the Sharm el-Sheik conference from a giant photo opportunity into a global war on terrorism.

But whether the conference succeeds now depends on London, Paris, Bonn, Riyadh and other capitals around the globe, where tough policies against terrorists and their sponsors must be maintained, experts say.

"If the entire project is to be serious, it depends not on the handshakes of heads of state but on the work of counterterrorism experts," said Marshall Breger, a professor of law at Catholic University of America and formerly of the conservative Heritage Foundation.

The March 13 conference in the Egyptian resort town condemned terrorism against Israel.

Last week's follow-up meeting here explored ways to end terrorism without bringing the peace process to a halt.

The diplomats who gathered in Washington laid the groundwork for another meeting later this month. U.S. officials hope that at that meeting, foreign ministers will agree to take concrete steps like sharing intelligence, exposing terrorist support groups and pressuring Iran and other rogue states to end their sponsorship of terror.

"The fight against terrorism requires coordination," said Shibley Telhami, director of the Near East studies program at Cornell University.

The March 28 and 29 meetings at the State Department were hampered by U.S. allies pushing different priorities, leaving many officials and observers wondering whether there is indeed a will to take effective measures against terrorism.

Part of the problem is that some countries seem more concerned about the plight of Palestinians as a result of the territories' closure than about fighting terrorism itself.

The meetings themselves were split between focusing on the Palestinians and focusing on terrorism, according to a senior Clinton administration official. And that development disturbed some counterterrorism experts.

"If you're going to fight terror, fight terror. This conference has been hijacked by the peace process people," said Paul Bremer, U.S. ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism from 1986 to 1989.

Suggesting that "one should not expect a great deal out of these conferences," Bremer said it is particularly difficult to accomplish much with so many players.

"The more countries that you have, the less you can accomplish," said Bremer, now the managing director of Kissinger Associates, a consulting firm.

Telhami said the world community must realize that "security is not an Israeli issue and financial support is not a Palestinian issue. They are both global issues."

"It's not a question of who is at fault but of helping the Palestinians and the Israelis," Telhami added.

But Bremer called on the United States to separate the issue of terrorism from that of economic support for the Palestinians.

"It is intellectually dishonest to argue that terrorism is motivated by the economic situation of Palestinians," he said. "The terror is not because of the economic situation but because they want to destroy Israel."

As the conference opened, Secretary of State Warren Christopher downplayed criticism of Israel for closing Gaza and the West Bank in the wake of the recent string of suicide attacks, which killed more than 60 people, and to focus the meeting on counterterrorism measures.

"We must act now to defeat the merchants of terror. We must answer their brutality with a common approach. We must answer it with a unified message," Christopher said.

At the same time, he added, "We must also find ways to support the Palestinian people as they too suffer the consequences of the Hamas terror."

The meeting was delayed almost 20 minutes while Christopher hammered out the final details of a deal in which Israel agreed to ease the closure by allowing Palestinians to export produce from the territories and to import construction materials and supplies from Egypt.

The agreement was reached in phone calls Christopher made to Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat.

In an effort to bolster the Palestinian economy, Norway agreed to host a donor's conference meeting April 12 to try to prod countries to deliver millions of dollars pledged to the Palestinian Authority.

"Now is the time" to pay up, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said at an impromptu meeting with reporters after the conference opened.

"It's critical," Burns said, citing "massive unemployment" in Gaza.

European and Asian countries have yet to deliver tens of million of dollars pledged to the Palestinians, Burns said.

Meanwhile, the success or failure of the effort to end terrorism will rest on the ability of the United States and its allies to work together to change the environment on the ground, observers say.

When foreign ministers meet later this month at a site yet to be determined, "We'll know whether there is a serious desire to root out terrorism," Telhami said.

"An environment has to be created where suicide bombings are not acceptable."

While most perpetrators of such acts believe they will achieve an eternal place in heaven, "no suicide bomber disregards what the living will think of him," Telhami added. "That's the power of these meetings."