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David Miller: Why Peace Eludes the Middle East

David Miller Online
Why Peace Still Eludes the Middle East

The numerous diplomatic attempts to bring a halt to the latest outbreak of violence in the Middle East have, not surprisingly, proved elusive.

The recent emergency summit hosted by Egypt, involving President Clinton and United Nations Secretary- General Kofi Annan reached an agreement from both Israel and the Palestinian Authority to halt the violence that has raged for the past three weeks, but so far this remains rhetoric rather than reality.

The catalyst for this latest outbreak of violence between Israeli security forces and Palestinian demonstrators was the visit by Ariel Sharon, the leader of Israel’s right wing Likud opposition party to Temple Mount, the third holiest site in Islam which is in East Jerusalem in a bid to reassert Israeli sovereignty over the ancient capital and the Holy Sites situated there.

Although Mr Sharon’s visit was the spark that lit the flames, this is a fire that has simmered along since the creation of Israel in 1948. This has involved acts of terrorism, refugee displacement, demonstrations, riots, through to all out war and this has been the case despite the peace process, which has been ongoing throughout the 1990’s.

During the past three weeks, the efforts for peace have faced their gravest test. The Palestinian Authority has accused Israel of declaring all out war on the Palestinian people through its military power, while Israel claims that the on going violence is the result of an orchestrated campaign on the part of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian leadership.

The Israeli’s argue that the violence is an attempt by Mr. Arafat and his associates to gain sympathy for their cause and restore Mr Arafat’s diplomatic fortunes after the blame was laid at his doorstep following the breakdown of the Camp David summit in July.

So can the peace process be restored and can a permanent solution be found? Even if the violence on the streets within the Occupied Territories and Israel abates, the outlook for a solution to this long running problem does not appear promising.

As yet there has been no suspension of hostilities, and ending the current wave of violence depends upon whether Mr Arafat has the power and influence to end the protests on the street and whether Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak withdraws the IDF back from Palestinian controlled land.

Both men are faced with strong challenges from the hardliners from within their camps who claim the peace process has brought their people no reward. Through making concessions to the Palestinians, Mr Barak has already lost his majority in the Knesset as disillusionment with the peace process grows.

Israel for its part, has not pulled back its military forces from Palestinian controlled areas, such as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and has rejected the idea of a United Nations commission of inquiry being sent to the region due to its suspicion of the world body.

On the other hand, Mr Arafat has not proved successful in curbing the activities of his people on the ground. There have been lulls in the confrontation, but Mr Arafat is believed to be losing ground to the hardliners such as the Islamic group Hamas, who have called for the Intifada to continue and for a Jihad or Holy War against the Jewish State.

The fundamental problem facing all sides is that even if the demonstrators leave the streets and the Israeli Defence Force pulls back, there are three major sticking points which separate the two peoples and remain as divisive as ever. First, there is the issue regarding Palestinian refugees and their return to their former homes.

The second surrounds the Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories and the third of these is the competing claims of sovereignty over Jerusalem. It is the sovereignty of Jerusalem, which both sides regard as their capital city, that is the principle subject of contention and the main area of disagreement.

Following the creation of Israel at the end of World War Two and the war that followed, Jerusalem was divided with Jordan exercising control over the eastern portion during this period. However this situation changed when Israel gained control of the entire city following its victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, and the annexation took place the following year.

Since this point control of Jerusalem has remained a non-negotiable issue for Israel and one claim from which the Palestinians will not move, even though the United Nations has passed a resolution for the status of Jerusalem to return to what it was prior to 1967.

Most states have not recognised Israel’s annexation of Jerusalem, indeed the Vatican has recently added its voice and influence to the argument by stating that it believes Israel must withdraw from East Jerusalem if peace is to be achieved. Mr Arafat has repeatedly stressed that the state of Palestine in any form must have East Jerusalem as its capital and it was for this reason why the Camp David summit in July failed to bring an agreement between the two sides.

What this means is that any permanent solution to this conflict will depend heavily on resolving the status of Jerusalem. There have been reports in the Jerusalem Post newspaper that Mr Barak is prepared to allow the establishment of a Palestinian capital at al- Quds, which is the Palestinian term for the city.

While Mr Barak may feel that meeting this condition is necessary for a lasting peace, whether an Israeli Prime Minister would survive signing a piece of paper allowing the creation of al-Quds is another matter entirely, and therefore it remains a very distant prospect.

Therefore, it is for this reason alone that when searching for a comprehensive and lasting peace in the Middle East the prize will remain an elusive one.

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