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Editorial: Time to re-start Mideast talks

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-08-20

Conflict between Arabs and Israelis has been the world's dominant regional crisis for six decades now, and this week it once again escalated as the Israeli government issued bids for 1,000 new homes in Jewish West Bank settlements. Israel's patron, the United States, had specifically requested the Likud-led government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to delay settlement expansions that violated the terms of the "roadmap" for Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations. The cause of Arab-Israeli conflict is relatively simple to grasp, even if the solution continues to flummox local as well as international players who do not want to see the crisis widen beyond the Middle East, from where the world still gets much of the crude oil that sustains global economic growth. At the heart of the problem is the fact that two peoples, Arabs and Israelis, want possession of the same bit of land that sits on the shores of the Mediterranean, the territory of Palestine. In an effort to win Arab and Zionist-Jewish support against Germany and its Ottoman Empire allies during World War One, the British made contradictory promises to both parties about who would control Palestine. In the event, Israel - a nation consisting largely of immigrant Jewish settlers from Europe and elsewhere - was formally established when the British Mandate in Palestine ended on 14 May 1948; the Palestinians - perhaps the most literate and sophisticated among all Arab communities - got nothing, leading to a mass exodus to neighbouring Arab states and beyond. Israel subsequently asserted its military dominance in the region during four Arab-Israeli wars, and the Palestinians remain a stateless people to this day.

The central question now is how to create a viable state for them. This has been the subject of a variety of peace proposals by well-meaning interlocutors such as the Norwegians, the Swiss, the Americans, and some Arab countries, most notably Egypt and Jordan - who signed formal peace treaties with Israel - and Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who informally suggested that Arabs recognize Israel in exchange for a return to Palestinians of most of the West Bank and Gaza, which Israel has long occupied in violation of United Nations resolutions. As the veteran U.S. diplomat, Mr Dennis Ross, argues in a forthcoming book, "The Missing Peace," absolutely nothing has come of anyone's peace proposals. He blames Washington for not being tough enough on the various parties during negotiations for fear that talks would break down. He also believes that the Americans, as mediators, should have established clear rules when it came to broken commitments. He chides the Israelis for being reluctant to give up control over the Palestinians, who must depend on everything from trade to jobs on Israeli munificence. Mr Ross also asserts that, in the final analysis, peace in the Middle East will depend on to what extent Arabs implement any comprehensive agreement with Israel. As long as leaders like Mr Yasser Arafat, President of the Palestinian Authority, harbour dreams of a "maximalist" solution - that is, gaining control of all of Palestine and driving Israel out of the region - there's going to be no peace. Israel, in turns, undermines moderate leaders among Palestinians by its heavy-handed approach - such as building a wall separating itself from Palestinian areas, continuing to expand illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, and using excessive force against civilian protestors. In effect, it is making extremism inevitable, especially among frustrated Arab youths - some of whom are recruited by terrorist organisations to become suicide bombers.

So what happens now? In a unipolar world where the U.S. is the reigning global power, Washington has the capacity to bring Israelis and Arabs back to the negotiating table. But this is an election year in the U.S., and President George W. Bush is understandably preoccupied with winning a second term. Even so, America's credibility with Arabs has been severely damaged because few of them believe that Washington can be even-handed. Israel, on the other hand, continues to distrust the United Nations, where most Third World nations have long condemned its treatment of Palestinians. The U.N. should legitimately serve as a forum for Middle East diplomacy, but Israeli suspicions virtually guarantee that nothing will come out of such efforts - even though U.N. Secretary General Kofi A. Annan of Ghana was part of the so-called "Quartet" that included the U.S., the European Union and Russia, all of whom drew a "roadmap" for peace in the Middle East. The time has come for an entirely different cast of characters to convene negotiations. India - with its high standing among both Israelis and Arabs - could play a vital role. So could nations such as Singapore, Malaysia, and Japan. Arabs and Israelis are dying almost daily in the Middle East, and a civilised world cannot afford to let this continue.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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