It’s Time for More U.S. Involvement – May 7, 2002

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There has been a regrettable escalation in the fighting between the Israelis and the Palestinians in the past few days that has eclipsed for the time being the Arab League Summit decision to establish normal relations with Israel in return for withdrawal by Israel from the territories it had occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. These territories are the West Bank, Gaza, Arab East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

Israel has reportedly voiced some caveats and reservations on the proposal saying that its security considerations do not permit it to withdraw to the pre-1967 borders. The return of Palestinian refugees displaced from their homes in the 1948 war is another contentious issue on which there is no meeting of the minds between the two sides so far.

Nonetheless, the very boldness of the Arab offer endorsed by the entire Arab League makes it necessary for the Israeli people and leadership to evaluate it dispassionately. It is easy for naysayers in both camps to pick holes in the offer. But I feel that if peace is to be restored to this region on the basis of the Oslo Accords and the relevant United Nations resolutions, the Arab League proposals offer a valid basis for serious negotiations.

The alternative is truly horrible to contemplate. Around 1,400 persons, 1,000 Palestinian and 400 Israeli, have lost their lives in the violence which erupted in September 2000. The Israelis and Palestinians give diametrically opposite versions of what led to the violence, each blaming the other side and claiming to be the victim.

The spate of suicide bombings which have been termed “morally repugnant” by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan prompted the Israelis to launch attacks on Palestinian-controlled territories in an effort to uproot the perpetrators. A few weeks ago the Israeli Army in a sweep of the teeming Palestinian refugee camps of the West Bank and Gaza killed 40 Palestinians in one day. The Palestinians responded through suicide bombings which have taken many Israeli lives.

While Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, has condemned the killing of civilians on both sides, he is either unwilling or powerless to stop them. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has declared him the enemy and has isolated him in his headquarters. The United States seems to be supporting the Israeli actions as self-defense, whereas in some other parts of the world, the Israeli actions have been criticized as excessive.

Regrettably, the only winners in this macabre dance of death are the intensifying hatred and mistrust which the two antagonists feel for each other.

The Israeli electorate had opted for Sharon over Ehud Barak in early 2001 in the belief that with his military background and hard-line views, he would be able to subdue Palestinian militancy and improve Israeli security. Sharon has been able to do neither in spite of the exercise of the military option.

Paradoxically, the use of force has, far from cowing the Palestinians, produced the opposite effect of stiffening their resolve to end the 35-year-old Israeli occupation.

It should be clear that the Israelis and Palestinians need to be separated before the conflict degenerates into all-out war with unpredictable consequences for the entire region. The Bush administration did the right thing in sending the presidential envoy, retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, back to Jerusalem for the third time to try for a cease fire.

The Palestinians are reportedly not entirely happy with the Zinni mission. They suspect that his mandate is largely limited to effecting a cease fire but not initiating political talks which would lead to the creation of a Palestinian state. The Israelis for their part suspect that the Palestinian Authority’s agenda is to work for the destruction of Israel through violence.

Such polarization of attitudes is a product of the increasing mistrust that the two feel for each other.

What Zinni needs is a clearer road map from Washington that he can sell to both sides. He has to ensure an end to suicide bombings which have wreaked havoc among Israelis.

He has to assuage Palestinian aspirations for an end to Israeli occupation. It is a difficult balancing act, but one which the United States, as the only credible power with clout with both sides, has to pursue with renewed vigor and determination. The hands-off approach, which the Bush administration had employed prior to the dispatch of Zinni to the region late last year, has proved to be a mistake. What is needed is strong, effective and impartial U.S. involvement in separating the Israelis and Palestinians from their destructive embrace.

It is in the interest of the entire world to prevent the historic conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians from spiraling out of control. It is high time that the United States should lead the effort to resolve the conflict so that further loss of innocent lives on both sides is stopped.

— S. Azmat Hassan, a resident of East Hanover, is a former Pakistani ambassador now teaching at Seton Hall University.
— From: The Daily Record, Morristown, NJ
— Published: April 7, 2002

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