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UN: Analysts See No Major Breakthrough Despite Security Council Vote On Palestine

  • Robert McMahon

The UN Security Council's vote to endorse a Palestinian state alongside Israel is being welcomed as an important move because it signals formal acceptance by Washington of a view long held by the rest of the world. But analysts of Mideast affairs say it will have little impact on the worsening conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. RFE/RL's UN correspondent Robert McMahon assesses the significance of the UN vote as international efforts intensify to bring peace to the Middle East.

United Nations, 14 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The new UN Security Council resolution endorsing statehood for the Palestinians is seen as significant mostly because of the surprise sponsorship of the measure by the United States, Israel's main ally on the Council.

The United States has blocked previous resolutions aimed at easing the violence that have been proposed to the Council during the 18 months of the Palestinian intifada. In that time, Washington has sought to play a low-key role, despite growing international appeals to be a more assertive power broker, especially in pressing the Israeli government to show restraint.

Washington has repeatedly supported Israel's right to protect itself and has opposed actions it considered biased against Israel.

But the United States sponsored a resolution late on 12 March that affirms the right of a Palestinian state to exist alongside Israel. The resolution also calls for an immediate cease-fire and welcomes the Saudi peace initiative calling for Arab states to offer Israel recognition if it withdraws from all Arab lands occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, whose strong appeal for a cease-fire preceded the Council action, welcomed the resolution and the U.S. role. He told a news conference yesterday why he considers it important: "I think it is quite significant that the Council passed this resolution, because when you have the kind of tragedy that is taking place in the Middle East, for an important party or third party to step in and say, 'Look, you better stop the killing. It has gone far enough. You should stop hostilities and talk,' is important. It also encourages people on the ground. And I think coming from the Security Council, the strong support of the U.S. will send another powerful message."

Annan will head to the Arab League summit in Lebanon in March to urge Arab leaders to work for peace in the Middle East.

But experts on Mideast affairs say the Security Council resolution, while a positive gesture, is not enough to influence events on the ground. They say it will take a far deeper commitment by the United States to a Israeli-Palestinian peace process to make a difference.

The question now is not Palestinian statehood but what the boundaries of that state should be, says Zachary Lockman, a professor in the Middle East Studies department at New York University. Lockman tells RFE/RL this issue should be on the agenda of U.S. mediator Anthony Zinni, who returns to the region today: "It's a good thing, I think, that Washington is finally paying attention. I'm not sure they're paying enough attention or they're paying the right kind of attention or are willing to do what it takes to compel the Israelis to back off and start negotiating again to get some kind of process going on again, resuming where it left off 18 months ago."

This view is shared by Henry Siegman, an expert on Mideast affairs at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank. Siegman tells RFE/RL that the Security Council resolution alone is simply a formal acknowledgement of a widely held position.

"Without a significant change in U.S. policy with regard to its own meaningful involvement in the peace process, this resolution on its own will [not] make a serious difference. Because what it affirmed is what everyone already knew," Siegman says.

It is not yet clear how broad Zinni's mandate will be. But the U.S. envoy is expected to seek to rebuild a cease-fire and push for peacemaking moves such as Israeli troop pullbacks and Palestinian detention of terrorist suspects. He is also expected to push for both sides to carry out recommendations from a commission led by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell aimed at reviving peace talks.

The U.S. envoy failed on two previous trips to the region, and his latest trip comes during a week in which Israel has mounted its biggest offensive in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since capturing the areas in the 1967 war.

Siegman of the Council on Foreign Relations says Zinni's mission is unlikely to bring about any meaningful change in the conflict because of its stress on short-term aims. Siegman says there needs to be an acknowledgement by the Israeli government that the goal of political talks is the achievement of a viable Palestinian state. But he says Zinni is unlikely to press the Israelis to take this position during his current trip:

"The big problem has been that the Palestinians are not prepared to commit themselves seriously to a cease-fire unless they are given reason to believe that they can achieve their goals through negotiations, through a political process," Siegman says "They have been holding out for a commitment to that effect."

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon recently shifted policy by ending his insistence on a halt to the violence before peacemaking can begin. But just ahead of Zinni's trip, he also authorized a major military incursion into Ramallah, the power base of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the West Bank.

U.S. President George W. Bush issued rare criticism of the Israeli offensive yesterday: "Frankly, it's not helpful, what the Israelis have recently done, in order to create conditions for peace. I understand someone is trying to defend themselves and to fight terror, but the recent actions aren't helpful."

The violence in the region continued overnight. Three Israelis were reported killed and two others injured early today when a convoy of military and civilian vehicles was bombed near Netzarim in the Gaza Strip. In the West Bank, at least one Palestinian was killed as Israeli forces continued operations in Ramallah.