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David Miller: Obstacles To Middle East Peace

David Miller Online: Removing The Last Obstacles To Peace In The Middle East.

As the violence between Israel and the Palestinians enters its seventh month, never has the prospect of peace looked so far away. Instead, ‘escalation’ has become the term that is being heard more and more and the situation has not been helped by the actions and rhetoric from all parties concerned with the conflict. It now appears that unless there is a drastic shift in policy from either side there is nothing standing in the way of an uprising becoming an all out war.

As in most conflicts such as the one in the Middle East, the more the violence escalates and inflicts costs, the more the power of those who seek a hard-line approach increases. This was evident in the election of Ariel Sharon as Israel’s Prime Minister and the fact that the talk from the Palestinians is less towards negotiations as it is towards a conquest of Jerusalem and the desire to fight on.

Following the strikes last week Palestinian President Yasser Arafat said that the Palestinian flag would fly above the walls of Jerusalem before Israeli military strikes could halt the Itifada or uprising against the Jewish state. Mr Arafat was speaking in response to the military strikes Israel launched last week that were in retaliation to a series of suicide bombings in Israeli territory by the Islamic militant group Hamas. Mr Arafat stated that the Israeli action was "an escalation," and that the strikes in Palestinian territories last week had targeted facilities associated with his elite bodyguard unit, Force 17. "They are preparing to escalate for the next 100 days ... against our people, against our institutions, against our houses, against our universities, against our everything" he said, "The Palestinian people will continue with force and determination until the Palestinian flag is raised above the walls, mosques and churches of Jerusalem, the capital of the future Palestinian state, whether [people] like it or not."

Such comments will only serve to worsen the situation even more and serve as a warning that salvaging anything from the peace process, even at this stage, has become an almost impossible task. Israel has been rocked by a series of suicide bombings in the past few weeks and Hamas promises that more of its operatives are located within Israel ready to strike. These strikes, plus incidents like the one last week in which a ten-month old Israeli child was killed by a sniper has led to the military campaign increasing and Israeli Defence Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer stating that Israel was ending its policy of self-restraint in dealing with the uprising. Hence the hard-line is beginning to prevail.

With the conflict escalating there is little outside parties can do. The Arab League finished last week’s leaders summit critical of Israel and pledging more support for the Palestinians while the United States did not do its image as a peace broker any favours by vetoing a United Nations Resolution to deploy an international force to the region in the Security Council, thus appearing to side with Israel. Israel had lobbied against the deployment of such a force saying it rewarded the Palestinians for the use of violence and the US vetoed the proposal on the grounds that there could be no peace between Israelis and Palestinians unless both parties agreed to all the terms. Unlike the Clinton Administration, the Bush White House has said that it will maintain a hands-off approach to conflict resolution around the world. This was shown during a recent summit with British Prime Minister Tony Blair when Mr Bush was asked about the US involvement in the Northern Ireland peace process he said that the US would enter the situation only when asked. This same type of policy has, until last week, applied to the Middle East.

President Bush has urged both sides to find a solution to the violence and that “both sides must take important steps to calm the situation now." The President has called on Israel to exercise restraint and to lift sanction measures, such as those restricting the movement of Palestinians as a means of re-starting dialogue. Mr Bush stated the US objective is to “encourage a series of reciprocal and parallel steps on both sides that will halt the escalating violence". Mr Bush plans to meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Monday and with Jordanian King Abdullah II the following week "to seek their help in diffusing the tensions." However it now appears that unless the two combatants agree to work towards a solution there appears a limit to the influence of these leaders.

If the United States does move further into the Israeli corner then the prospects for peace will dim dramatically. The US is an Israeli ally and therefore it is expected to support the Jewish state in its latest conflict. However the US must be careful here not to cross to far to one side. It must not be suggested that for one moment that Washington abandon Israel or that that it uses its influence to restrict Israel’s action while those of others continue unabated, but it must use it influence wisely. The US does have leverage and influence to get the Palestinians to the negotiating table as well as its warm relations with Israel’s Arab neighbours and this must be a path Washington utilises also. If the US loses or discards this option then one of the few remaining paths to peace may be closed indefinitely and that will mean an all out Israeli- Palestinian war and the stability of the Middle East will be thrown into jeopardy.

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