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UN: Analysts See Israelis, Palestinians Far From Peace Table

  • Robert McMahon

This week's escalation in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians brought new appeals from the international community for both sides to resume peace talks. But analysts say they see little sign the parties will soon come to the negotiating table due to the absence of an international consensus needed to pressure both sides and their own lack of interest. UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 13 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A new, more serious phase in the fighting between Israelis and Palestinians has aroused concern by regional and international leaders that the escalating conflict could spread out of control.

The United States, Russia, and France all issued statements yesterday (12 April) calling on Israeli and Palestinian leaders to take urgent steps to end the violence. They urged both sides to take parallel and reciprocal steps to create conditions for a return to negotiations on a comprehensive political settlement.

The statements by top officials of the three influential countries follow an upsurge in the fighting, which has killed more than 370 Palestinians and more than 80 Israelis.

The Palestinians have been firing mortars at targets in Israel proper with increasing regularity. In response, Israeli tanks and bulldozers on 11 April raided a Palestinian refugee camp in Gaza to destroy buildings linked to the mortar attacks. It marked the largest Israeli ground incursion into Palestinian-ruled territory since the violence erupted in September.

Jordan's King Abdullah and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in separate statements after the 11 April developments, raised alarm that the conflict could spiral out of control.

But despite the concern, there is little sign that sufficient international pressure will come soon to bring the Israelis and Palestinians to ceasefire talks, says Judith Kipper, director of Middle East studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"Unless there is a consensus in the international community to really bring pressure to bear on both sides to get them to a ceasefire table, it's going to escalate."

The UN secretary-general continues to appeal for restraint by both sides. His spokesman, Fred Eckhart, said yesterday that despite the escalation, Annan does not envision any fresh role for himself as a conflict mediator.

"I think he'll continue to work quietly to try to nudge both sides to do whatever they can to reduce tensions beyond the meeting of this security mechanism that the United States helped set up."

Naomi Weinberger, a Mideast specialist and director of the UN studies program at New York's Columbia University, says Annan has the stature to play a role as peace broker. But she tells RFE/RL that neither the Israelis nor Palestinians seem inclined to take steps toward conflict resolution.

"I think a UN role is premature. I certainly wouldn't rule out good offices by Kofi Annan -- who has a lot of credibility with all of the parties -- at some point further along, but the parties need to be receptive."

Weinberger sees a further escalation of violence as likely with southern Lebanon and Syria possibly being drawn into the fighting.

Ceasefire talks held at the home of U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk ended without result early yesterday. Agency reports say the Palestinians asked Israel to lift travel restrictions and pull back its forces to positions they held before the outbreak of fighting. Israel said the Palestinians must stop their attacks before an easing of restrictions could be considered.

Henry Siegman, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, tells RFE/RL that the best solution that can be hoped for at the moment is some arrangement to manage and lower the violence. And both Siegman and Kipper, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, say the leadership of both sides is not interested in making any lasting deal for peace.

Kipper says the violence has persisted because of what she called a "tolerance for pain." By way of comparison, she says, the Iran-Iraq War lasted eight years before Iran's leader Ayatollah Khomeini was moved to negotiate a deal to end the fighting.

"Ayatollah Khomeini took the bitter poison to end the war with Iraq when it became unbearable for the Iranian society to sustain that war. Unfortunately, the Israelis and Palestinians' tolerance hasn't been reached yet."

Analysts say the United States can play a critical role but there are mixed opinions on its commitment to brokering a Middle East settlement. Siegman says the administration of President George Bush has not engaged the two sides in a serious way. But Kipper says the administration has been active, "although not terribly verbal." And Jordan's king, in Washington this week, said it was unfair to describe the Bush administration's approach to the Middle East as "hands-off."

King Abdullah said the U.S. administration has indicated that before it gets heavily involved again in negotiations, it wants to see proof that both sides are serious about moving in the right direction.