Sat, Feb 05, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Momentum is building for Mideast peace

There is no question the current situation between Israel and the Palestinians presents a window to move toward peace, but the main obstacles that could derail the whole process must be kept in mind

By Michel Rocard

Are Israelis and Palestinians really ready to strike a peace agreement? Events have certainly moved at a brisk pace in recent months, with one obstacle after another to a lasting deal seeming to come down. Yasser Arafat's death was followed by the choice of his successor in a direct election with universal suffrage, which was accompanied by Israel's decision -- one unique in the world -- to help, not hinder the democratic process in territories it occupies. As a result, no one doubts Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' legitimacy.

Moreover, with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's announcement of his intention to withdraw Israel's army unilaterally from Gaza, the occupation itself is once again an open question, offering opportunities for further progress. Indeed, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's support for the Gaza withdrawal has helped open the door to real negotiations.

Such an impressive sequence of events has not been seen for a long time in that troubled region. As a result, many -- inside and outside the Middle East -- have become optimistic again. Even Sharon ventures a few favorable comments, and US diplomats express visible sighs of relief that progress toward peace can at last be made.

I can attest to the gathering momentum toward peace, having just returned from the Palestinian territories, where I led a nearly five-week mission of EU observers, the largest ever put in place by the EU. The mission was 260-strong on the day of the election and the counting of the vote, while 40 of us had been there for the whole five-week period.

My testimony about the election is categorical: the circumstances were difficult, but the voting was unconstrained and without cheating. Given the conditions, the 60 percent voter turnout was astonishing. There can be no doubt that Abbas was democratically elected. Nor is there any doubt that the Palestinian people made a choice for democracy, which entails a choice for a negotiated peace with Israel.

But this leaves out the terrorists, who have not made this choice. They are not numerous, but they are very dangerous. Only genuine progress toward a just peace settlement will neutralize them as a political force.

There is no question that current conditions present a unique window of opportunity. But we must keep in mind the major difficulties that can limit our ability to seize this opportunity, and the international community must make these difficulties very clear to both parties.

The first difficulty is that, although Sharon evidently intends to go through with his military withdrawal from Gaza, he is vague about what he wants to achieve in future negotiations. Indeed, he has never made the slightest allusion to the idea of including the West Bank and Jerusalem in such negotiations. But, for the Palestinians, there can be no negotiations that do not include both issues.?

The second difficulty concerns the fact that Sharon has always appeared to believe that it is within the means of the Palestinian Authority to eradicate all terrorism arising from Palestinian territories and aimed at Israel. However, all external observers know very well that this is not the case, even if Abbas can undoubtedly succeed in reducing the level and number of attacks.

In order for the Palestinian people as a whole to cease to glorify, support and shelter terrorists, they need to discover real hope for a new life for themselves. That, in turn, depends on an economic recovery in the occupied territories and a belief that concrete steps toward a negotiated political solution are being taken.

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