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A Gleam of Hope in the Middle East
Last uploaded : Friday 18th Oct 2002 at 00:03
Contributed by : Gideon Samet



Reviving dialogue

British Prime Minister Tony Blair (right) turned an important new page in the old Middle Eastern conflict book this week. The British prime minister's proposal that talks on a final Israeli-Palestinian agreement start before the end of the year ostensibly carried little news. All of its elements have already seen the light of diplomatic day. Except one: By setting a date, Blair hinted at an international conference where a renewed peace process could be started off. Like many useful initiatives that state the obvious, this one stands out because of its timing and recent background.

Immediate reactions from the office of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon were equally significant. Sources there, unidentified but sounding a familiar tone, said that the Blair statement "meant nothing" to them. Britain's Foreign Office, they added, has been always known for its pro-Arab diplomats. In a public address, Sharon generalized about recent statements by world leaders "designed to placate the Arabs for various reasons," citing the possibility of a war in Iraq.

These comments echoed Sharon's conviction that with the Bush administration setting the world diplomatic scene, he has no reason to take notice of concerted international pressure. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recently spoke of the "so-called" Israeli occupation of the territories; most of the American top brass is similarly skeptical of a comprehensive, Clinton-style solution to the conflict.

That's where Blair seemed efficiently creative. Knowing that the Bush administration is ill at ease initiating a robust Middle Eastern drive, he took the lead in a speech to the Labour Party convention. The consequences of his suggestion are more far-reaching than they may at first seem.

If Blair was placating anybody, it was domestic critics of his avid support of the U.S. plans to attack Iraq. But reports here confirm that Blair got White House approval before making his move. The precedent that both Washington and London may now duplicate happened 11 years ago this month and showed unexpected results. President George H.W. Bush and his energetic secretary of state, James Baker, had pressured Israel's intransigent prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, to participate in the Madrid international conference.

Sharon, then construction minister in the Likud government, firmly opposed Israel's participation even after it had been confirmed. He knew why: The Madrid gathering turned out to be a precursor of the Oslo agreements.

Blair seems to postulate a similar direction. A new conference - in London, say - would drive home a point being staunchly yet hopelessly made by supporters of a renewed peace drive in Israel and elsewhere. They maintain that dialogue is not only essential between the warring parties but that, if properly managed, it has a fair chance of success.

Securely ensconced as leader and wishing to imbue his leadership with a sense of value, Blair seems to aspire to a place in the history books.

He is out to fashion a framework that will remove our conflict from the morass of blood and destruction in which it has become been mired. If Blair succeeds in getting a hesitant America to embark on this track, Sharon will soon enough find himself with an invitation to an international conference that will endeavor to repeat the achievements of the previous one. The conference will benefit the struggle against terrorism, will expedite Yasser Arafat's replacement if he does not cooperate, and will hasten the reforms in the Palestinian Authority without posting these as preconditions.

If the 1991 scenario is replayed, it could gather unexpected momentum. Besides getting together two bitter parties who cannot initiate such talks on their own, the conference would unavoidably shake the extreme right in the Israeli coalition to a point, just as in the Madrid days, where it would quit.

The new opening would allow the return of a notion that has been badly stifled and discredited in Israel: namely, that dialogue, rather than having been blocked, is the only way to settle this conflict after all other roads have been forcefully tried in vain.

# # #

The writer, a member of the editorial board of the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.

Source: International Herald Tribune, October 5, 2002

Visit the IHT at http://www.iht.com/

JewishComment is grateful to Common Ground news service for securing Copyright permission for publication.

e-mail: cgnews@sfcg.org

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