The UN must drive Middle East peace

Global stability can no longer be held hostage to the claims of Israeli settlers.

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Early next month, the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza (and the Syrians of the Golan Heights) will have the dubious honor of having lived for 40 years under foreign military rule. Where is the final peace agreement that can end these people's plight?

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has spoken about offering Palestinians and Israelis a "political horizon" for the eventual resolution of their conflict. But the only plan she's offered so far would merely tweak some small details of the vast system of movement controls that Israel maintains over the Palestinians. And with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and US President Bush both very weak politically, don't expect diplomatic boldness from either man anytime soon.

Yet the Israeli-Palestinian issue remains one with crucial impact on global stability. The time has come for the United Nations and other world powers to tell Washington that the near-monopoly the US has exercised over Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy for most of the past 40 years needs to end.

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The last time the US undertook any serious final-status diplomacy was the last-ditch effort that President Clinton launched in late 2000. But that was too little, too late. And quite predictably, it failed. For his part, Mr. Bush has always been very reluctant to push for the kind of final-status peace talks that the Palestinians – and most Israelis – so sorely need. A final peace would, most importantly, end the decades-long conflict that has weighed heavily on both societies. But both nations would need to make painful concessions. Substantial bodies of opinion on both sides are ready for this, but in the absence of meaningful final-status diplomacy, the fears of the doubters always loom disproportionately large.

Successive Israeli governments have continued with their project to implant large numbers of Israelis inside the West Bank. Today, as many as 440,000 Israeli settlers live among the nearly 2.5 million Palestinians of the occupied West Bank (including East Jerusalem.)

The size of this settler population considerably complicates the search for a solution. The settlers now form more than 5 percent of Israel's electorate. And their appropriation of huge quantities of the West Bank's land and water makes it hard to imagine how any viable Palestinian state could be established on the land that the settlers have not (yet) taken.

Occupied East Jerusalem is of particular concern. The roughly 185,000 Israelis settlers there are nearly as numerous as the area's Palestinians. All Palestinians, including the most moderate, are adamant that the capital of their state needs to be in East Jerusalem. Nearly all Israelis say just as firmly that they want to keep Jerusalem under their own undiluted control.

Being ruled by a foreign military force is never a pleasant or democratic experience. It is a situation that occurs when armies fight across large swaths of land, and when the cease-fire comes, one of the armies finds itself controlling land that is not its government's own national territory. The clear expectation in international law is that occupation of "foreign" land is only a short, temporary phase, pending the parties' conclusion of a final peace agreement. International law is quite clear that military occupation gives the occupying power no lasting rights of sovereignty – and that this power cannot settle its own civilian population into the occupied area.

In the Arab-Israeli conflict of June 1967, the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights, and Egypt's Sinai Peninsula all came under Israeli military occupation. In 1979, Israel and Egypt signed a treaty whereby Egypt regained all of Sinai in return for a final peace with Israel. But the diplomacy regarding the Palestinian territories was stalled. In 1993, the Palestine Liberation Organization signed the (interim) Oslo accords with Israel. But that agreement eventually failed and both sides are now skeptical of further interim agreements. Oslo did not deliver security to Israel, and it delivered neither security nor an acceptable basis for daily life to the Palestinians.

So now it is time for diplomatic boldness – led by the international community. Palestinian leaders and Arab governments have lined up behind a plan put forward by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah in 2002 and again this spring. It offers Israel an end to hostilities and full, normal relations with all the Arab states in return for a full withdrawal from the lands Israel occupied in 1967. That is one excellent building block for ongoing diplomacy.

Mr. Olmert has said he welcomes direct talks with the Arab leaders, but he remains mum on the demand for a full Israeli withdrawal, and his government has continued to give generous support to the settlement-building project. Some Israelis gave a warmer welcome to the Saudi plan, but Israel's pro-peace movement is currently weak and divided. If Israelis are not ready for a near-total withdrawal, perhaps the UN will have to brainstorm alternatives to the two-state formula it has insisted on since 1947 for the area of pre-1947 Palestine.

Of course, these issues are politically hard to handle. Right now, they look far too hard for the US to handle on its own, or even with the aid of the international "quartet" that has backed Washington's efforts since 2002. That's why it may be time for the UN to move into the driver's seat. Global stability can no longer be held hostage to the claims of the Israeli settlers.

Helena Cobban is a Friend in Washington for the Friends Committee on National Legislation. The views expressed here are her own.

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