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Time for America to impose
a Middle East deal




December 12, 2001

LONDON - Perhaps one can see an end to the war in Afghanistan, even to Osama bin Laden himself, but can anyone see an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? America has shown that with its awesome armoury that defeat is swift for anyone who publicly dare step into the ring for a round or two, which the Taliban, by giving refuge to bin Laden, decided to do. (Of course, it is another matter if Qaida now bunkers down in secret cells all over the place.) But who is going to deliver the decisive blow with Palestine/Israel? This is a war of attrition that could knock on and drag on until not much is left standing.

On the Palestinian side the outcome certainly could be a degree of material destruction that could make much of the country rubble; on the Israeli side it is more likely to make it simply unliveable. While the buildings and infrastructure may be left standing many people, especially those with marketable professional skills, may decide this is no place to bring up a family and simply pack their bags. Already there are 30,000 Israeli emigrants living and working in San Francisco's South Bay area alone.

So bad is the situation that the American envoy, General Anthony Zinni said last Sunday, a mere two weeks after his arrival in Israel, that he was considering on pulling out. Yet when he arrived he said he would stay as long as it took to restore calm and restart peace talks. So what next?

Where for starters does Prime Minister Ariel Sharon go? He could order his secret service to assassinate Yasser Arafat, as many of his advisers have been pushing him to do. That would shake things up. It could hand power to Hamas, the most powerful of the militant groups who could then strike a deal with Sharon that nobody in Palestine would dare challenge. But that is a long shot.

It would more likely lead to both a more intensive intifada and to a fratricidal conflict within Palestine itself. Although so far the militants have not shown much interest in being associated with Qaida, would they refuse an offer from a Qaida cell that decided to make Israel pay? Sharon who gambled and lost in the Lebanon would be a fool to gamble again with taking the life of Mr Arafat.

At some point Sharon has to stop playing politics and ask himself why Arafat walked away from the Camp David deal and more particularly from that worked out afterwards in Taba in Egypt a few months after Intifada 2 had got going? There can only be two explanations. The first, which Sharon himself seems to believe, that Arafat does not want peace with Israel, that his secret agenda is the one that he revealed in a sermon in a South African mosque a few years ago: to drive Israel into the sea. The second is to believe that Arafat would have clinched the deal if the then Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, could have delivered on it. But with an election looming and the immoveable Sharon the likely winner Arafat would have gambled all, only to have it thrown in his face. Barak, who wasted time on an impossible deal with Syria and a drawn out negotiation over Israel's occupation of the south of Lebanon, had simply left it too late.

The first explanation is no explanation. Palestinian rhetoric at its worst has always contained the end-of-Israel expletives. But a deal on the lines of Camp David/Thaba, if finalized by Arafat and Sharon, would be set in cement. The Palestinian educated, professional class would not stand for playing with it. Neither would other Arab governments. Whatever the doubts in governments such as Saudi Arabia or Syria, they would go along, as they eventually felt compelled to over Egypt's historic rapprochement with Israel twenty-four years ago. Besides, it as this point that a great deal would deserve to be guaranteed internationally- not just by the U.S., but by Europe and Russia too.

What was the Thaba deal? It is worth reiteration: a Palestinian state to control 95% of the West Bank and Gaza; Israeli settlers to be concentrated on about 5% of the land which Israel would annex, with Palestine being compensated with Israeli land in the Negev desert; the Arab neighbourhoods of Jerusalem, including those in the Old City to be absorbed by Palestine; the Haram al-Sharif mosque to be under Palestinian sovereignty and the Wailing Wall under Israeli; and Palestinian refugees to be either compensated with money, settled in Palestine or, on a case by case basis, in Israel.

For sure, there were bits and pieces still to be negotiated: the Negev desert was not a good substitute for loss of part of the West Bank and the refugee deal needed to be fleshed out. But compared with what Barak first put on the table all these concessions were Israeli milestones. Moreover, given the right political climate in Israel- a right wing being led with an element of foresight- they are sellable to the electorate.

Short term political perspectives have to go out of the window - Sharon waiting for a week without violence before he will talk; Arafat refusing to spell out in public at home his vision of a deal; and President George Bush waiting until he has defeated Qaida.

Bush has to stand up, with Europe and Russia at his side, and tell Sharon and Arafat, this has to be your deal and we are going to make it stick.


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2001 By JONATHAN POWER



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