I have frequently warned that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon intends to channel international peacemaking efforts towards a single objective: establishing that Israeli military might, not talks, will bring stability and security to the people of Israel. The events of the past week have confirmed this suspicion. Despite intensive efforts to restore calm in Palestine as part of an overall plan to revive negotiations, international mediators have been frustrated repeatedly by Sharon’s stubborn refusal to link security to political concerns and thus bring an effective end to the violence in Palestine.
Clearly, many concerned parties are coming to the conclusion that the Arabs reached some time ago: the Israeli prime minister has no desire to abandon his reckless belligerency and resume the peace process. Everything Sharon has said and done recently confirms that the mastermind of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon — the “butcher of Sabra and Shatila” — has not changed his spots, and that he will not think twice before perpetrating further outrages against the Palestinians and, perhaps, neighbouring Arab peoples.
Even the US, Israeli’s staunchest ally, has begun to show its displeasure. If the Bush administration still couches its rhetoric in pro-Israeli terms, it has nevertheless begun to distance itself from Sharon’s positions and to make the shift from its “wait-and- see” attitude to increasingly direct involvement. This trend is evident in its decision to appoint a special envoy to monitor Middle East peace efforts, reports that Secretary of State Colin Powell is planning another visit to the region, and pointed official statements stressing that security and stability cannot be reached by force of arms.
In Europe, the change is perhaps more dramatic. Most countries of the EU, whose vital interests are more immediately affected by circumstances in the Middle East, have grown impatient with following the American line of appeasing Tel Aviv as the situation threatens to spiral out of control. Significant indications of the shift in European thinking have been the visit of the EU High Commissioner for Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana to the region, and the relatively strongly worded statement on the situation in the occupied territories issued recently by the EU summit held in Gutenberg. The coldness of Solana’s reception in Israel underscores the growing rift between the EU and the Sharon government.
More telling of the tenor of international opinion is the recent visit of Kofi Annan to the region. In Lebanon, the UN secretary-general declared that the Shebaa Farms, occupied by Israel, should be restored to Lebanon within the framework of a peace agreement between the two countries. The statement, moreover, was the prelude to an unprecedented verbal clash between Annan and Sharon over Israel’s frequent fighter plane incursions over Beirut. Sharon claimed that the flights, which repeatedly break the sound barrier, are carried out to detect Hizbullah preparations for strikes against Israeli forces in the Shebaa area. Annan countered that the planes are flying over Beirut, while Hizbullah is in the south and the Beqaa, adding that the incursions constitute a violation of the UN blue line.
If Sharon attempted to undermine Annan’s efforts by insisting on meeting him in Jerusalem, and reiterating in his presence the claim that Jerusalem is the indivisible, eternal capital of Jerusalem, the secretary- general deftly managed to turn the tables. In no uncertain terms, Annan stressed the need to link Israeli with Palestinian concerns as outlined in the Mitchell report. He said he wanted to see a clear definition of the road ahead, with a time frame for implementing the recommendations of the Mitchell report, and warned that a cease-fire, while an important element of the process, is not the end of that road.
In his discussions with Shimon Peres, the UN secretary-general must have played upon the Israeli foreign minister’s reputation as Nobel Peace Prize laureate, for Peres, at least in Annan’s presence, tried to reassume the mantle of statesman. Instead of echoing Sharon’s typical arrogance, as has been the case since he joined the government, Peres admitted that the Mitchell report, although it is constructed upon successive phases, is a single package. These phases are a cease-fire, confidence building and a return to negotiations. The Tenet plan is an embodiment of the first phase, as it compromises a cease-fire, an end to provocation, the redeployment of Israeli forces to their positions prior to 1 October, a lifting of the closure and easing life for civilians.
Not surprisingly, Annan’s visit to Israel precipitated Sharon’s first full-fledged cabinet crisis. Peres was not toeing the government line, and he and Sharon clashed openly over the UN secretary-general’s proposal to hold a meeting between Peres, Arafat and Annan — to which Sharon, of course, was vehemently opposed. Peres ultimately caved in to Sharon’s insistence on a united government stance.
Changing attitudes towards Israeli policy, and Sharon specifically, are also beginning to assert themselves at a less formal level. Of particular note has been the recent BBC1 documentary The Accused, featuring testimonies of international war crimes experts and examining Sharon’s record of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
That such a documentary should be aired in the UK at this time sums up the growing international disgust with Sharon, and the growing awareness that his intransigence and hawkishness pose the gravest threat at present to regional peace and stability. Sharon’s time is coming to an end. The world is going to push harder for the implementation of the Mitchell recommendations, which recognise both Israel’s security needs and the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people. But I strongly suspect that, before it succeeds, Sharon and his gang will create even greater tension between Jewish colonial settlers and the Palestinians, banking on a Palestinian reaction that could serve as proof that the cease-fire is not complete. I only hope that international opinion will not be taken in by such tactics, because the only certain path to regional peace and stability is an end to Israel’s occupation of Arab territory.