Internationalizing the process?

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Recent weeks have witnessed a bewildering wave of initiatives to introduce international mechanisms and solutions into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from the Arab League-endorsed Saudi initiative, via an international mandate on the West Bank and Gaza (proposed by former United States ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk), to the initiative ascribed to US President George W. Bush and Saudi Crown Prince Abdallah to “divide up” the task of pressuring Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Two international initiatives have actually been launched: the dispatch of American-British jailers to Jericho, whose arrival brought about the conclusion of the Israeli siege on Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah; and the United Nations’ abortive Jenin fact-finding commission.

Internationalization has thus become the dominant theme in Israeli-Arab conflict resolution. It reflects the obvious inability of the belligerent parties to deal with the conflict on their own. Accordingly, this escalation of the search for a solution to the international level must be seen as a welcome development. But it is also fraught with dangers: the collapse of an international conference is liable to have the same domino effect as the failure of Camp David II in July 2000. Hence the need to examine the Israeli and Palestinian positions, the pitfalls, and the tasks that face the conference organizers in the coming weeks.

The Sharon government can claim to have taken the initiative to convene a “regional” conference of fairly similar proportions. This appears to have been one of Sharon’s tactics for rebuffing US and UN pressure during the recent military campaign. Sharon also hopes that the presence of Saudi, Egyptian and Jordanian leaders will enable him to bypass Arafat and discuss the Palestinian issue in terms closer to his own. This perception is based on messages passed on to him in recent weeks from Arab leaders who are highly critical of Arafat’s leadership.

The conference idea may also enable Sharon to play for time politically while the Israeli-Palestinian situation stabilizes under international and regional pressure, until the anticipated US offensive against Iraq reshuffles the Middle East cards. On the other hand, if the situation does not stabilize and Palestinian suicide bombings are renewed, Sharon will again have a pretext for freezing peace talks and invoking military measures. But note that Palestinian success in focusing world attention on Israel’s actions in Jenin will mitigate against any far-reaching new Israel Defense Forces offensive, say, against the refugee camps in Gaza.

One specific issue that the parties will have to address in the coming weeks concerns an invitation to Syria (and, by extension, Lebanon) to join the conference. The Saudi initiative would appear to mandate such an invitation. Would Sharon welcome the prospect of an Israeli negotiating track with Syria at Palestinian expense? Conceivably. But would Arafat? Indeed, are any of the relevant leaders interested in bringing Bashar al-Asad into the process, in view of the Syrian president’s apparent acute failure to “grow into” his job?

Sharon must also decide whether he wants the conference to be held at the most senior leadership echelon, where he would have to face off with the “irrelevant” Arafat, or at the level of foreign ministers, where Shimon Peres might take maverick initiatives behind his back. And how will the Israeli prime minister deal with hawkish pressures within his own party, which now threatens to reject the very idea of a two-state solution?

Arafat, for his part, has always sought “international legitimization” for the Palestinian cause, and specifically international backing for UN resolutions regarding refugee and territorial issues as he interprets them. Generally speaking he can count on Arab, UN and EU support. But will he adopt realistic positions that might sway the US? And can he ensure a tranquil atmosphere back home? Indeed, in view of his recent record (e.g., encouraging terrorism precisely when US envoys arrive in the region), is he even interested in doing so?

Given that neither Sharon nor Arafat has embraced realistic peace proposals, one challenge for the conference initiator, the US, is to organize effective pressure on both sides to moderate their positions. A more immediate task is to ensure a stable ceasefire and recruit broad agreement regarding a conference agenda, the identity of the participants and the level of representation– without which the conference is a non-starter.

Ostensibly, the US international conference initiative reflects a much-needed undertaking by the Bush administration to deal aggressively with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, it is not yet clear that this is the case. The president’s own commitment is not certain. A clearly enunciated blessing from the Pentagon or from Congress for the new approach has not been heard. Mid-term election considerations may generate constraints on Bush’s willingness to back Powell when, in the crunch, it becomes necessary to pressure Sharon.

International process, American process–or no process? The coming weeks will tell.

Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”

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