"A Parallel Divergence"

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Posted by Lilly from ? ( on Monday, May 27, 2002 at 2:45PM :

In Reply to: Clarifying the real obstacles to peace posted by Lilly from ? ( on Monday, May 27, 2002 at 1:49PM :

Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM

A parallel divergence
Everyone agrees the Arab-Israeli conflict must be steered to calmer waters. There is difference over how, though, writes Nevine Khalil

Tuesday's AUC-sponsored lecture on Arab and Western views of current events in the occupied Palestinian territories began amicably enough with Osama El-Baz, chief political adviser to the president, and John Sawers, Britain's ambassador to Cairo, agreeing that any characterisation of the Arab and Western positions as diametrically opposed was inaccurate. Arab and Western perspectives, they concurred, run parallel on a number of issues: on the need to resolve the conflict through negotiations, the necessity of creating a Palestinian state, the injustice of Israel's occupation, the need for a stronger Palestinian Authority (PA), Israel's exploitation of the war on terrorism to serve its own goals, and excessive violence being inimical to negotiations.

The initial consensus began to show cracks, however, in defining the parameters of Palestinian resistance, the quality of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's leadership, and the allocation of prime responsibility for the current crisis.

The West, El-Baz argued, "appears to favour Israel over the Arabs" because of bias towards a nominally democratic state; it has also, he continued, shown itself perfectly willing to make amends for the Holocaust at the expense of Arab rights. While Sawers agreed that there were "subtleties in the differences, in the media images, in the emotions" between the West and Arabs, "recent appalling violence," he insisted, "has led to a consensus rather than a polarisation of opinion on what the next steps should be." There was, he said, a shared sense of "horror at the excessive and disproportionate violence the Israeli defence forces have been using."

The British ambassador was keen to distinguish between European and American perspectives on the peace process. The US, he said, was more sympathetic to Israel because it was thought to be "fighting terror" and there was much more frustration with Arafat in Washington than in Europe. With support for Israel on Capitol Hill at its strongest, he said, criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was severely limited, while American Jewry remained closely aligned with the Israeli government regardless of who was in power in Tel Aviv.

El-Baz took issue with Israel's "fragmented" body politic, and characterised Sharon's policy-making as "hallucinatory". "Nobody really knows Sharon's perspective on the peace process," he said, "and I'm not sure he has one... The Arabs have presented a vision for peace, but [Sharon] has a very different agenda."

El-Baz argued that the way forward was to convene an international conference with fixed terms of reference. "This should be possible," said the veteran diplomat, "within six weeks." It should be convened within the contextual framework provided by UN resolutions 242, 338, 1397, 1402 and 1403, the land-for-peace formula, the Oslo Accords and subsequent agreements; its objective should be agreement on the Palestinian and the Syrian and Lebanese tracks, and should include among its participants the US, EU, Russia, the Palestinians, Syrians, Lebanese, Egyptians, Jordanians, Israelis and UN.

It was the impasse in the peace process, Sawers contended, that facilitated the swing to the far right in Israeli politics muffling, in the process, the Israeli peace camp and fragmenting the Palestinian leadership. To move forward, he argued, it was necessary to consolidate positions on the two- state solution, end violence, restart peace talks and strengthen the PA's ability to administer a future Palestinian state.

On the Palestinians' right to resist Israeli occupation Sawers made a blurred distinction between "indiscriminate resistance" and "indiscriminate violence": the latter, he said, was "damaging and makes a solution remote." To label Palestinian resistance to occupation as "nonsensical" was as invalid, he said, as arguing "that any act by any Palestinian against Israel is legitimate."

"There is violence on both sides and the fundamental problem is occupation, but there is no greater obstacle to bringing an end to Israeli occupation than the tactics being pursued by extremist Palestinian factions," he argued.

"If the majority of Palestinians see the light at the end of the tunnel, they will be able to prevent groups such as Hamas or Jihad from spoiling and destroying the peace process. But they have to see the light first," El-Baz responded.

Following the encounter Sawers told Al-Ahram Weekly that the Europeans were continuously pressuring the Israelis by "daily raising the issues of disproportionate use of force, denying access to humanitarian agencies, putting Arafat under a siege... a whole series of issues which we believe are unjustified and in the long run are contrary to Israel's interests." He was, though, unsupportive of sanctions against Israel: "There is responsibility on both sides and blaming and sanctioning only one side rather than encouraging both sides to go back to negotiations will not achieve the outcome you want."

Denying that the international community is assisting Sharon in replacing Arafat by supporting calls to reform the PA, Sawers told the Weekly that strengthening the PA had always been on the European agenda. "One of the reasons why the [PA] has been unable to reach a solution to the Palestinian question is because it is so weak," he said.

El- Baz, on the other hand, insisted that the PA, and the Palestinian people, must decide on issues relating to reform. "It should not be imposed or dictated from the outside," he told reporters after the lecture. "Sharon talks about this as if he's talking about reforming the Israeli government."

-- Lilly
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