The New Israeli Government, the Bleak Situation

and the Responsibility of the International Community

The new Israeli government of Ariel Sharon was sworn in on 7 March, signaling a potential for further deterioration of the Palestinian-Israeli relationship and the situation in the Middle East as a whole. The new government is a strange creature, bringing together extreme right partners, such as Mr. Zeíevi, on the one hand, and representatives of the Labor party, such as Mr. Peres, on the other hand. One thing, however, is clear Ė Mr. Sharon and his Likud party will be the dominant power in this coalition.

Some of us had thought that by this point in time we would be on the verge of a serious breakthrough in reaching a final Palestinian-Israeli settlement. Unfortunately, however, we find ourselves faced with the critical deterioration of both the situation on the ground and the peace process itself. The swearing in of the new Israeli government could plunge us even further in this downward spiral.

The situation on the ground started to dramatically decline beginning with the infamous visit of Mr. Sharon, now Prime Minister, to Al-Haram Al-Sharif in Occupied East Jerusalem on 28 September 2000. The Palestinian people reacted in rejection of this Israeli aggression against their holiest site - an aggression that intensified their deep anger and frustration at the continuation of the Israeli occupation and the failure of the promises of the peace process to materialize.

Since that day, a bloody Israeli military campaign has been waged against the Palestinian people. This campaign has involved the use of Israelís military might, including heavy weaponry, and the destruction of the Palestinian economy through a combination of severe restrictions on the movement of persons and goods, direct destruction of economic facilities and agricultural lands, and withholding of Palestinian money. Moreover, Israelís brutal military campaign has resulted in the catastrophic human loss of more than 373 Palestinian martyrs and more than 20,000 Palestinians injured, of which 2,000 have been permanently disabled. The ongoing situation has caused a serious decline in the living conditions of the Palestinian people and the escalation of hardships in all sectors of life. As such, the social, economic and psychological consequences of Israelís military campaign and economic siege have been devastating, both individually and collectively, for the Palestinian people.

As for the peace process, its deterioration began with the failure of the previous Israeli government to abide fully by the agreed basis for concluding a final settlement between the two sides during the Camp David negotiations and thereafter, irrespective of slight improvement in the weeks prior to the Israeli election. This failure was followed by the above-mentioned military campaign, many actions of which constitute grave breaches of the 4th Geneva Convention and are in clear violation of international law and Security Council and General Assembly resolutions.

The decline in the peace process and the situation on the ground was followed by the above-mentioned election of Mr. Sharon as Prime Minister. Mr. Sharon has been publicly stating that he would be willing to negotiate only a partial agreement and even then with many conditions. Such a position, which regrettably appears to have become part of the negotiated guidelines of the new Israeli government, completely negates the existing agreements between the two sides and destroys the peace process. The agreements mandate the conclusion of a final settlement agreement and do not allow for a perpetual transitional period or continuous partial agreements. In fact, the crux of the peace process has always been the mutual recognition between the two sides and the implementation of U.N. Security Council resolution 242 (1967) at the end of a transitional period of 5 years. Obviously, the 5 years have passed and the agreed-upon extensions have also passed. Attempts now to escape resolution 242 and the principle of land for peace and impose yet another partial agreement can only be understood as a withdrawal from the peace process, which will severely undermine its achievements and could return the two sides to a pre-peace process confrontation.

In these circumstances, one must ask: What is the responsibility of the international community and what can be done to save the situation? To begin, the permanent responsibility of the U.N. towards the question of Palestine until it is resolved in all its aspects must be reaffirmed, thus reaffirming the U.N.ís important role in the peace process and the ultimate resolution of the conflict. For the last few months the Palestinian side has maintained that a more prominent role by the U.N. is expected and needed in the coming period, whether the situation developed in a positive or negative way. Unfortunately, the situation has developed negatively, but that changes neither the need nor our expectations.

The U.N. must take measures towards halting the deterioration on the ground and restoring the situation, as a first step, to what it was prior to 28 September. An important measure in this respect could be the dispatching of a U.N. observer mission composed of military and police observers to provide much-needed protection for the Palestinian people and increased stability in the area. As noted in the January issue of Palestine & The UN, on 18 December 2000 the Security Council failed to adopt a draft resolution, which would have led to the creation of such a mission, due to the lack of the required 9 affirmative votes. The Palestinian side remains hopeful that the Council will soon be ready to take the necessary action in this regard.

The U.N. General Assembly, on the other hand, has called for a Conference of the High Contracting Parties to the 4th Geneva Convention to enforce the Convention in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem. Action by the High Contracting Parties and the depositary, Switzerland, in that direction, consistent with their legal and even moral obligations under the Convention, is greatly needed and will also help address the situation on the ground.

These two steps and others are necessary. The international community must make it clear to the occupying Power that the crux of the problem is the occupation and its continuation and that, whatever happens, ending the occupation should remain the aim that must be achieved in the near future. Attempts to appease the Israeli government, or be artificially neutral, as the occupation and violations continue, aside from being totally unfair to the Palestinian people, cannot but harm the prospects for a better future, including the future of the Israelis. Additionally, there is the increasing Palestinian need for assistance to ameliorate poor living conditions and to meet the basic operating costs of the Palestinian Authority. Fortunately, several donor countries have already responded to urgent appeals, especially the EU and some Arab brothers, as well as the U.N. system.

On the political level, what is needed is an absolute affirmation of the need to abide by the agreed basis of the Middle East peace process and the existing agreements, which can only mean the absolute necessity for negotiating a final settlement including all issues such as Jerusalem and refugees. It is also necessary for the parties to take the progress made over the past few years into consideration. Neither party should be allowed to return us to a point behind the progress that has already been achieved. This is the way to save the peace process and to push for the achievement of a real and comprehensive peace in the region, including on the Syrian and Lebanese tracks. No one should evade responsibility and no one actually should be allowed to escape responsibility, especially those who played a role in formulating the existing agreements and in putting together this peace process. Thus, we expect serious efforts by those parties, especially the cosponsors of the process and in particular the new U.S. administration.