On the brink of peace - and war

In N. Ireland, Macedonia, Israel, and the Philippines, turning points are at hand.

In an unusual confluence of events, some of the world's longest-standing and most difficult peace efforts have reached a crucial stage at nearly the same time. Their future course now depends on the will of central participants - and on the redoubled efforts of key third-party peacemakers.

In some cases, peace deals are proceeding against all predictions. Macedonia may yet avoid the downward spiral of ethnic fighting in which so many of its Balkan neighbors have been caught. In Asia, the new government of the Philippines has struck a promising pact with rebels - with the help of a concerned neighbor, Malaysia.

But in others, the peace work of generations now hangs in the balance. Northern Ireland has come so far, yet its opposing parties may be losing the strength and desire to control their own extremists. Israel and the Palestinians are at war in all but name. The US deplores it, while saying conditions are not right for more active mediation.

"Where the US has been successful [in the Mideast] is when the parties themselves reached agreement, the US has been able to walk the last mile with them and get them to sign," says John Alterman, a Mideast specialist at the US Institute of Peace in Washington. "The US has never been very successful at bringing the sides from very far apart."

In Macedonia - where the European Union has been the most active mediator - the parties have been very far apart, indeed. In fact, intense violence erupted yesterday in the town of Tetovo. That may yet derail the power-sharing agreement struck by ethnic-Slavic and Albanian political parties on Wednesday.

The pact was set for an official signing ceremony on Monday. Even if it enters into force, it will not be easy to implement and may even cause more civil unrest, say analysts. The agreement calls for use of Albanian as an official language, police reforms in Albanian areas, and the deployment of 3,500 NATO troops to disarm rebels of the self-styled National Liberation Army (NLA).

Macedonians see the accord as capitulating to terrorists, while the Albanian rebels see it as a watered-down version of civil rights meant to trick them.

"I don't think [this pact] has much of a chance.... There are certain people on both sides who benefit from conflict," says Vera Budway, assistant coordinator of the Southeast European Cooperative Initiative in Prague, Czech Republic.

The Europeans have been heavily involved in Macedonia, in part because they do not want to see another flood of refugees swamp the Balkans. Their involvement may not have yet halted the violence - but so far, at least, it has prevented the all-out war that devastated Bosnia.

"If it weren't for the international negotiators, there would already be a full-scale civil war going on, without a doubt," says Ms. Budway.

In the Philippines there is more optimism. Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo took a great leap this week, toward resolving the conflict in the southern Philippines, where three decades of fighting between government forces and Muslim rebels has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

Ironically, disgraced former Philippine leader Joseph Estrada may have paved the way for the cease-fire deal by smashing rebel bases with his "fight, fight" strategy. With little infrastructure left, and with a new president more eager to talk, the rebels decided to strike a deal.

Malaysia helped, too. The mostly Muslim nation helped broker the deal between the largely Muslim Philippine rebels and the government. This is not the first time that the Philippines, a predominately Roman Catholic nation, has turned toward some of its Muslim neighbors for assistance in negotiating with the Islamic separatists. In the past, playing peacemaker was a role often reserved for Indonesia, a regional heavyweight and the world's most populous Muslim nation. But the sprawling archipelago's persistent problems have lowered its profile as a Southeast Asian mediator, a position that Malaysia is keen to fill.

"Indonesia used to be the principal broker in the negotiations, but because if its internal problems, Indonesia has lost some of its influence and Malaysia stepped in," says Alexander Magno, a University of the Philippines political scientist.

Northern Ireland has also benefitted from third-party intervention. Through the efforts of US Sen. George Mitchell and others, the deep historical roots of the Northern Ireland conflict have been largely surmounted in recent years.

Protestant Unionists and Catholic Republics now work together on local councils. A power-sharing Ulster Assembly has given Northern Ireland a taste of self-rule.

The IRA has made what it regards as a breakthrough offer on arms decommissioning. Unionists, impatient over how long the decommissioning process has dragged on, have rejected the offer as insufficient. Britain could reimpose London rule as early as this weekend.

In some ways, the situation in Northern Ireland is similar to that in the Middle East, say experts. Those who want peace are unable, or unwilling, to control the extreme elements among them.

In the Middle East, those extreme elements appear to be in the saddle. The US-brokered negotiations during the Clinton years may have failed to pay enough attention to the growing impatience of the Palestinian street with its miserable existence.

In both the Northern Ireland and the Middle East case, "the missing ingredient is an insufficient attention to politics," says John Alterman of USIP.

Brokering efforts must not only pay attention to current problems, but to the burden of the past, adds Joseph Montville, director of the Preventative Diplomacy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In Northern Ireland, much of the progress made in the past came about after "the Catholics recognized the need to reassure Protestants that Catholics didn't have in mind any retaliation for centuries of repression" through the so-called Good Friday agreement, says Montville.

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