24 - 30 June 1999
Issue No. 435
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Kosovo's challengeBy Mohamed Sid-Ahmed
The centrality of the Middle East in the US foreign policy agenda has long been taken for granted. And the main thrust of Washington's diplomacy in the region has long been directed at reaching a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Indeed, Arab-Israeli negotiations have been sustained over the years thanks mainly to US insistence that they be kept alive. But what if the Middle East conflict were to be eclipsed by another that Washington considers more worthy of its attention? What if US diplomacy shifted its attention to Kosovo? Would there then be sufficient momentum to ensure the resumption of the peace talks in the post-Netanyahu era?
The political realities in the region itself do not hold out much hope for a speedy resolution of the crisis. On the Israeli side, Barak is still having problems forming his cabinet, despite his strong showing at the polls (a record 56 per cent), and the support he enjoys from the Clinton administration, which regards him as a definite improvement over his recalcitrant predecessor. And yet the 45 days in which he is required to name the members of his cabinet are drawing to a close with no discernible progress towards the composition of his government.
As I wrote in a recent article, the increasingly contentious nature of Israeli politics as revealed in the recent election campaign has prompted Barak to rearrange his priorities: first form a national unity government, then move forward with the peace process. But his dream of bringing about a national reconciliation has not materialised. The mainly Ashkenazi secular left-wing Meretz Party (10 seats in the Knesset) has refused to share the government with the moderate religious Shas Party (presently Israel's third biggest party with 17 seats in the Knesset) despite the fact that the latter is not opposed in principle to the peace process.
Shas is keen to be part of the government (any government) to control the ministries that can provide its schools, hospitals and social services with the necessary funding. But neither Barak nor any of the parties that can eventually join a coalition under his leadership are ready to accept Shas's participation in the government while its leader, Arieh Deri, now serving a four-year prison sentence for corruption, remains at the head of the party. Although Deri announced earlier this week that he was resigning from all the positions he held, this has not been sufficient to sway Meretz from its decision not to participate in government with Shas.
A government of national unity also means that Barak must attempt to convince the leaders of Likud to take part in it, especially now that Netanyahu has stepped down as party leader. A Likud contained inside a government of 'national unity' under strong Labour leadership could appear to Barak as an ideal solution, a way of neutralising the Likud instead of leaving it outside the coalition, free to sabotage the peace process. For the very same reason, the Likud leaders are reluctant to commit themselves to a government that could implicate them in some form of political suicide, preferring to remain outside government and concentrate on mending their own fences.
Thus Barak has not succeeded in bringing about the hoped for national reconciliation, leading some observers to speculate that a secular Labour/Likud coalition is less difficult to forge than a coalition between the secular Meretz and the religious Shas parties. If all this fails, Barak will have to form a minority government with support from no more than 59 of the 120 members of the Knesset -- that is, if he does not want to be dependent on the support of the ten Arab Knesset members.
The situation is not much better on the Arab side. One would have thought that the priority given by Israel's new prime minister to bringing about Jewish reconciliation would have prompted the Arab parties to try and bring about a reconciliation in Arab ranks, if not in the form of a comprehensive summit conference, at least in the form of a limited summit between the five parties directly neighbouring Israel: Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Unfortunately, however, efforts in this direction have been foiled by the strong antagonism between Syrian leader Hafez Al-Assad and Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat.
The need for a comprehensive Arab summit is particularly urgent at a time the region is moving dangerously close to the no-war/no-peace situation that prevailed before 1973. Moreover, the critical conflicts in the Middle East itself or on its periphery are not limited to the Arab-Israeli crisis only, but now also include the Balkan crisis and the Iraqi crisis. Matters are further complicated by the drop in oil prices, which have sunk to their lowest level since the oil boom of the seventies. All these crisis situations combined need an overall view that cannot be reached by a piecemeal approach.
When the US decided to wage war on Yugoslavia, it avoided the possibility of a Russian or Chinese veto by circumventing the Security Council altogether and replacing it with NATO. It was only after the war ended that the Security Council issued a resolution on the Kosovo crisis. Although in the last two decades the US has in effect taken over the sponsorship of the Middle East peace process, the Security Council was never formally excluded as an element in the equation. This state of affairs could well change now that the authority of the Security Council has been successfully challenged in the Kosovo crisis. A precedent has been set for the formal dismissal of the Security Council, and the Arabs will find it that much harder to invoke Security Council or UN General Assembly resolutions in defence of their case (SC resolutions 242, 338, 425; UN General Assembly resolution 181, etc..) All of which makes it all the more imperative to convene an Arab summit, if not a comprehensive summit, at the very least a limited summit.
Moreover, one should not exclude the possibility that Clinton would like to come up with 'guidelines for a final settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict' before the end of his second (and last) term as president early next year. Such an achievement could do much in rehabilitating his image after the Monicagate scandal. But with the ingredients of the Arab-Israeli conflict remaining as intractable as they still are, it is the Arab parties, not Barak, who will be required to make most of the concessions. Rambouillet was a sample of an ultimatum disguised in the benign form of a respectable agreement. Now that the precedent has been set, there is no reason to suppose it will not be repeated in the Middle East.