Stepping Aside in the Mideast

As Israel and the Palestinians slid down the slippery slope of revenge violence once again, one bright star appeared over the Middle East this week.

It was a short speech by the UN secretary-general at the Arab summit that said far more than any American president would dare say.

Kofi Annan, who is quite capable of filling the diplomatic vacuum left by President Bush's hands-off stance toward Mideast peace, displayed the kind of even-handed wisdom needed to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli dispute.

He accused Israel of inflicting "collective punishment" on the Palestinian people by shutting off their economy and of administering an "excessively harsh response" to street violence in Palestinian areas. By cutting off the West Bank and Gaza, Israel has blocked deliveries of medicine, food, and fuel.

But this soft-spoken African diplomat, who was just endorsed by Mr. Bush for a second term as UN chief, also told 22 Arab leaders that "Israel has a right, enshrined in numerous UN resolutions, to exist in safety within internationally recognized borders." Arab interests would fare better "if many Israelis did not believe that their existence was under threat."

Annan spoke just as the United States was using its veto power in the UN Security Council to block a resolution backing a UN observer force to help protect Palestinians.

The US was following Israel's wish not to "internationalize" the peace process, a process in which Israel has the upper hand. But it is just this sort of American one-sidedness that drives the frustrations of Palestinians and convinces them that the US cannot be an honest broker.

Even President Clinton's Mideast envoy, Dennis Ross, backs the idea of the US stepping back for now. The past six months of violence has all but ended a decade of peace-making. Israel has elected a hard-liner, Ariel Sharon, as prime minister, and Yasser Arafat hasn't done enough to end Palestinian violence.

The US once supported UN Security Council Resolution 242, which for decades as been considered by most countries as the basis for a settlement. But it has since tried to mediate detailed bargains between the two sides.

As a guarantor of Israel's security, the US does have a strong role to play in peace talks.

But letting the Europeans or the UN now have a role might be a way to bring new ideas and new incentives that can break the cycle of hatred and violence.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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