'New broom' should sweep out old Mideast policy

Even before America's voting machines have been put back in storage, the Israeli and Palestinian leaders will (separately) be in Washington. Those visits will force hard choices on President Bill Clinton - and especially on his successor.

If the successor is Vice President Gore, there is some chance that he and Clinton will be able to coordinate well on Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy. If it's a Bush administration, the coordination may be less smooth. But whoever the next president is, this "new broom" will need to make deep changes in the diplomacy that Washington has pursued for the past seven years.

That policy, whose failure is now evident, was built on four pillars:

* Abstention from spelling out America's own interest in seeing a strong and fair peace agreement in the Middle East, and from any mention of the solid principles of international law on which this peace must be based.

* Gradualism in the diplomacy that has dragged deadlines out, and dragged the American president into negotiations over ever-smaller details, while the goal of peace remained elusive.

* License to the Israelis to use their military superiority (backed by generous US aid) to continue illegally settling their own civilians in the occupied lands, and to impose harsh punishments on the Palestinians.

* Support for Palestinian authoritarianism, which stifled internal Palestinian politics, and led to an explosion of Palestinian anger aimed at Yasser Arafat's perceived weakness in the negotiations and at Israel's continuing occupation.

Each of those aspects of Mr. Clinton's diplomacy needs to be changed.

Let's return, for a moment, to that image of American voting machines, and the concept of people's sovereignty that they represent. How much longer can American diplomacy ignore the desire for independence and popular sovereignty that is clearly expressed by 2.9 million Palestinians in the occupied territories?

And yes, in spite of all the partial agreements reached in and since the 1993 Oslo accord, Israel's status as effective occupying power over the whole of the West Bank and Gaza still continues. After the Oslo accord, Israeli officials spelled out that that was so. And Israel has used this status numerous times, including in the current disturbances, to besiege Palestinian-held areas, and to use tanks, helicopters, and small-arms fire against them.

How many Americans understand what it's like to have your native land controlled by a hostile military force, totally unaccountable to the local people? For 33 long years? Yes, the Palestinians' excesses have been shocking. But the depth of their frustration with alien control is understandable.

The continuation of Israel's status as occupier is not only wrong. It is also illegal under international law. Israel has no legally admissible claim for title over the West Bank and Gaza. All it has is the fact of its military presence. Since when did Americans think that "might makes right"?

Our new president will surely see, too, that the presence of 180,000 civilian Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, and 160,000 in East Jerusalem, complicates the search for peace and disengagement. (That's why Ariel Sharon and his friends worked so hard to put the settlers there in the first place.)

Today, many settlers look like unfortunate pawns, trapped on remote and suddenly dangerous hilltops. Others are more active troublemakers, igniting tensions with local Palestinians. There was a good reason that the nations of the world, meeting in Geneva in 1949, expressly prohibited occupying powers from moving their own civilians into lands held under military occupation. Memories of recent demographic manipulations in Europe's occupied lands were still vivid.

Our new president must do all he can to stop Israel from putting in any new settlers, and might also offer support to existing settlers who want to return to their Israeli homeland.

At a broader level, and given the evident failure of Clinton's gradualism, the new president needs to shift American diplomacy swiftly back to a firm basis in international law. Is there any reason today that Israel should be treated differently from other nations? Today's Israel is rich, strong, and self-confident. It can defend its national interests far better from within its own recognized boundaries than it can by maintaining a destabilizing presence in other people's lands. That is what an international-law approach would mean - and it's what most Israelis themselves learned from their experiences in Egypt, and Lebanon.

Can our new president, seeing the United States interest in a strong Middle East peace, undertake these needed shifts in policy?

Without them, there is little hope for a Middle East at peace. The occupied territories today are as unstable and explosive as South Africa's black homelands in the late 1980s. In Palestine - as in South Africa, or America - sovereignty should be seen as stemming from the people's will, and from international law.

Certainly, not from the barrel of a tank gun.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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