The meeting between Palestinian President Arafat and US Secretary of State Colin Powell was positive and constructive, an important first step in a more active US role in confronting the disastrous consequences that have ensued from Israel’s perpetuation of its assault against the Palestinian people.
To the Palestinians, the meeting represented an affirmation from Washington that it is impossible to by-pass Arafat and that Washington is prepared to listen to both sides in order to stop the cycle of violence.
As Powell entered the Palestinian territories and Arafat’s beleaguered compound he saw for himself the stark realities. He also saw the Europeans who had risked their lives to enter the compound and serve as a human shield to protect Arafat. These realities must have made no small impression on the US secretary of state. And when he reiterated the US demand on Arafat to do more to “prevent suicide operations,” he recognised that, after all the death wreaked by the Israeli siege, brute force continues to provide neither security, nor is it able to halt resistance.
The most salient implicit message to emerge from the Powell-Arafat meeting was that, although the restoration of calm requires effort from both sides, the process must begin with Israeli withdrawal from the territories it has again occupied. It also requires close and ongoing US involvement, informed not solely by the perspective, calculations and objectives of Tel Aviv, but also by the views of the Palestinians as well as of the major international powers. In addition, efforts to resume negotiations must be cumulative; they must focus on building upon past accomplishments. To try to start negotiations from scratch would be both futile and a needless waste of time.
It has been suggested that during his second meeting with Sharon, Powell signaled his approval of the Israeli prime minister’s proposal to hold a new international conference on a Middle East peace settlement. Participants would include, in addition to the Israelis and Palestinians, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco. It would be sponsored by the US and discuss the Arab peace initiative. Frankly the proposal does not merit consideration. What is needed is for Israel to implement the agreements it has signed and the various Security Council resolutions calling for, among other things, the withdrawal of Israeli forces from occupied territories and the creation of an independent Palestinian state. It is pointless to hold more conferences and conclude more agreements when we already have a store of agreements and understandings to work with.
What is most needed is an Israeli peace partner who can be trusted to implement its obligations in good faith, and a peace sponsor who has the confidence of the Palestinian leadership and people.
Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said, “Sharon’s proposal is a waste of time and cannot serve as a substitute for the Arab peace initiative adopted in Beirut,” adding, “Sharon has it in his power to accept the initiative, end the occupation and return to the borders of pre-5 June 1967.” This is the general feeling in the Arab world, which also perceives Sharon’s proposal as another thinly disguised bid to legitimise his terrorism against the Palestinian people. This is the man who issued the instructions to decimate the PA infrastructure and who is openly defying international will. For him to sit around the negotiating table with various Arab parties would serve as little more than a smoke screen for the terrorism perpetrated by the occupation forces, a chance to undermine the positions the Arabs adopted in Beirut and a means of evading international justice for the war crimes he has perpetrated.
In spite of these reservations and profound misgivings, the Arabs could agree to hold a new international conference if guarantees were in place to ensure it would not turn into a forum for marketing Sharon’s aggression, another avenue for him to evade the responsibilities involved in reaching a settlement and a ruse to fragment a single issue into dozens of isolated ones as happened in Madrid and Oslo. One important guarantee would be that the conference be held under international sponsorship, including such powers as Russia, China, the EU and the UN. These sponsors, moreover, should have equal status rather than being dominated by a “principal sponsor” as has been the case in the past. Secondly, there must be thorough preparation for the conference, the agenda of which should revolve around three explicit points: the principle of Israel’s withdrawal to the pre-June 1967 borders as an integrated process with no more than a year between its various phases; the principle of establishing a Palestinian state on the whole of the West Bank and Gaza with its capital in East Jerusalem, and a fair and acceptable solution to the issue of Palestinian refugees.
The starting point for such a conference must be the immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces to their positions before the outbreak of the Aqsa Intifada, at which point the UN Security Council should issue a resolution stationing international forces between the two sides. It must also be clear that the Arab initiative can, and should, embody the spirit of the conference if it is held. The initiative offers a clear, fair and viable formula for peace: in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal from all Arab territories occupied in June 1967, including the Syrian Golan Heights and Mazraa Shabaa in Lebanon, the Arabs will declare an end to the conflict with Israel and establish normal relations with it, at which point Israel will become an ordinary state in the region enjoying the right to live within safe and recognised boundaries.
Sadly, the Arabs’ experience in dealing with Israel gives little ground for confidence. The Arab demand for an international conference to solve the Middle East conflict dates back to 1974. Israel’s response has invariably been negative. It has always rejected the idea of internationalizing the peace process or allowing any other broker apart from the US, with its clear pro-Israeli bias. All of which serves only to heighten suspicions about the nature of the proposals Sharon floated.
If the goal of such a conference is truly to reach a settlement conducive to a viable peace, then let the Arab initiative serve as the framework from which the practical agenda that will lead to such a settlement is derived. To allow Sharon to capitalize on his proposal in order to confer legitimacy on his policies of terror will only contribute to perpetuating the cycle of violence.