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Autumn conference must be "substantive"


President Bush last summer proposed a Mideast peace conference to be conducted on 2007 fall. The plan would involve the so-called Quartet ? the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia in addition to Israel and some of its neighbors
Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert welcomed the proposal. But an official with Hamas, which now controls Gaza, accused Bush of outlining "a plot to launch a crusade against the Palestinian people" and urged "all Arab countries to stand firm against these threats."
It is no coincidence that the call to internationalise the Palestinian cause gained such momentum since Hamas?s seizure of power in Gaza in mid-June. The latest official collective Arab drive for internationalisation began much earlier and at a much broader level. In its extraordinary session of 20 September 2006, the Arab League Ministerial Council resolved to turn the entire Arab-Israeli conflict over to the UN Security Council. In its subsequent emergency session of 12 November 2006, the Saudi foreign affairs minister stated, "it is now of the utmost urgency that an international conference attended by all concerned parties be held in order to end the horrific massacres of the Palestinian people and to safeguard their legitimate rights." He also called for "the deployment of an international observation force from the UN to monitor the protection of the Palestinian people."
With the beginning of the New Year, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa reiterated this call for an international conference. Speaking in Madrid on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the Madrid Conference, he said, "if, in the course of 2007, there is no progress in the peace process, the Arab League will appeal to the UN, on behalf of all Arab countries, to assume responsibility for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict." More recently, on 29 July, he stated, "it has long been an Arab desire to hold an international peace conference on the Middle East. We have voiced this demand to the International Quartet in Sharm El-Sheikh and the UN Security Council."
At the level of the international community, in the post- Oslo phase, the trend towards internationalising a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict was first expressed in the "roadmap" plan, at least to a certain level. According to some, the International Quartet, which sponsored the roadmap plan, subscribed to an international plan that presumed it possible to reach a comprehensive settlement to the conflict by 2005. They further cited a provision in that plan that explicitly calls for a "first" international conference that would found a Palestinian state with temporary borders, leading to international recognition of that entity and, possibly, at second stage, UN membership. The plan also provided that the Quartet would sponsor a second international conference to conclude a treaty that would establish a sovereign democratic Palestinian state living alongside Israel in peace and security within permanent and internationally recognised boundaries.
However, since Washington continues to dominate the handling of the Arab-Israeli conflict, its position will probably continue to prevail. On 16 July, on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the declaration of his unfulfilled "vision" of two states living in peace side by side, Bush unveiled a proposal for an international conference to be held in autumn. Within a day the equivocation began. Prime Minister Blair as the Quartet representative for his part, announced several days later that the conference would be a "regional" one, in which connection he stressed, "the regional conference this autumn will have real substance. It will not merely be a meeting of leaders with a lot of speeches, handshaking and photo-ops."
Naturally, no overview of the internationalisation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would be complete without taking into account the Israeli perspective. Every one of Israel?s 31 governments, from Ben Gurion?s temporary government in 1948 to the Olmert government today, has rejected the principle of internationalisation out of hand. One cannot but help, here, to note the paradox, since Israel itself owes its very existence to international processes, from the British mandate, which paved the way for a homeland for Jews in Palestine, to UN Resolution 181 of 1947, officially establishing the state of Israel. As consistent as Israel has been in its rejection of internationalisation, there have nonetheless been some slight shifts in position that were more in the nature of subtle shades of the same colour.
The Palestinian question has its roots in international mechanisms. The British mandate over Palestine was the product of the League of Nations. The establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine and, subsequently, the establishment of a Jewish state on a part of that mandated territory were the results of international agreements and resolutions. At least in part because of the attrition on the portion of territory designated for a Palestinian state under the 1947 partition resolution, it is not stretching things too far to suggest that the fate of the Palestinian question is still contingent upon further international agreement. It should be acknowledged that the Palestinians, especially when compared to the Zionist movement, were and perhaps still are structurally ill equipped to further their cause. This applies both to how they handled their drive towards independence internally and how they read changes in the political climate and international balances of power.
Israel is certain to go along with Bush?s call for an "international" conference this autumn. Its agreement has less to do with its special relationship with Washington than with the fact that the initiative falls considerably short of a truly international framework that has the power to furnish the necessary enforcement mechanisms, in accordance with the UN Charter, that were tried and successfully tested in such cases as Namibia and Kosovo.
It would be a pity for the Palestinians and the Arabs to concentrate solely on the partial or selective formula for internationalisation proposed by Bush. Whether it is international or regional, or a conference or a "meeting", may seem important in the short-run, but such questions miss an essential point: little good will come of such a scheme if it is not international in the full and comprehensive sense, as understood by the community of nations bound by the UN Charter, and if it is not linked to a clear and specific plan executed under UN auspices in accordance with the provisions of UN instruments. The only available solution that meets these conditions is the international trusteeship system that took the place of the international mandate system that contributed to the creation of the state of Israel, as well as the creation of many Arab states in their current geographical boundaries.
Since history has regretfully demonstrated that Palestinian factions and their leaderships are unqualified to lead the Palestinian people towards the realisation of their aspirations for national liberation and an independent democratic state, clearly the best option is for the PA to take the initiative to dissolve itself within the framework of a national appeal to fully internationalise the Palestinian cause and to work to secure the best possible conditions for a trusteeship such as that described above.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that a planned November conference on Israeli-Palestinian dispute must be ?serious? and ?substantive.? In a news conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, Rice addressed Palestinian and Arab reluctance to attend the US-sponsored meeting unless a significant breakthrough was expected. Preparations for the conference have become increasingly bumpy, and the exact date, place, agenda and participants remain undecided, two months after the meeting was announced in July by US President George W Bush.
While Abbas is demanding an ?agreement? of substance that would serve as the framework of a final peace deal, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert wants to limit the outcome to a one-page document, which he prefers to call a ?declaration of intentions,? or ?understanding? - terms of a less-binding nature.  The Israeli and Palestinian leaders have met four times since July to prepare for the November conference, but they remain far apart on their basic expectations from the planned parley. Aides to the Palestinian president have warned that neither Abbas nor other moderate Arab leaders would attend unless Olmert offered a far- reaching agreement.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniya, who has continues to call himself prime minister in Gaza despite his dismissal by Abbas, has also met with leaders of militant factions and urged them to end the rocket fire in a bid to avoid the new Israeli sanctions.  But the military wing of Abbas? own Fatah movement and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) said they would not stop firing rockets until an independent Palestinian state was established, with Jerusalem as a capital and Palestinian refugees allowed to return to the homes they fled in what is now Israel.

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