Annan steps warily into Middle East minefield

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The Independent Online
FIRST we had the Russians bringing peace to the Middle East in the shape of Victor Possouvaliouk, special envoy to President Boris Yeltsin. He told us at the Lebanese foreign ministry that Moscow supported UN Security Council Resolution 425, which calls on Israel to withdraw from Lebanon. Then came the hero of Har Homa, our own Robin Cook, who also supported 425, but noted that the Syrians would like Golan back at the same time as the Israelis left Lebanon. Yesterday, the saviour of Baghdad, the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, turned up to tell us how much he wanted to see 425 implemented. Within 10 days, it will be the Iranian turn to tell us, in the same marble-corridored foyer of the Beirut foreign ministry, what a jolly good thing 425 is.

Mr Annan - or Mr Kofi as the Lebanese like to call him - is no fool. And while he would like UN resolutions implemented in the Middle East, he knows well that the Syrians are in no mood to see Israel pull out of Lebanon and thus lose the only military pressure they have on the Israelis: the guerrilla war in the south of the country.

Besides, he realises the snakepit of double standards does not permit him to lecture the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the same way that Bill Clinton likes to threaten Saddam Hussein of Iraq. Israel ignores UN resolutions and remains America's protege in the Middle East; Iraq ignores UN sanctions and gets regularly biffed for doing so.

Mr Annan has, in fact, so well understood the double standards of the area that he spoke with admiration of Washington's lamentable stewardship of the "peace process". In Jordan, he gave US efforts his "full support". In Beirut yesterday, while acknowledging that it had run into "a number of unforeseen [sic] difficulties", he told us he hoped "that the efforts that the United States is making to push forward the peace process will succeed". Which is odd, since American efforts to dig up the corpse of the Oslo agreement appear to involve little more than mild criticism of Israel's continued settlement-building, fierce Israeli-style demands for the Palestinians to suppress "terrorism", and a refused dinner date for Benjamin Netanyahu with President Clinton (a discourtesy Mr Netanyahu extended to Mr Cook this week).

But Mr Annan is, in reality, treading a very gentle path through the Middle East minefield. He can desire the implementation of UN Security Council resolutions 242, 338 and 425 on Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab land - upon which the "peace process" is supposed to be founded - without condemning Israel for refusing to obey the UN. It was the American- sponsored Oslo agreement that offered the Palestinians a hope of a state - not the UN.

"One thing you can say for Annan is that he knows how to navigate," one of his aides muttered to me amid those marble columns yesterday. Indeed, Captain Kofi is not going to sail his boat into an iceberg. That will be left to Yasser Arafat and Mr Netanyahu and, possibly, Captain Bill Clinton himself. The UN Secretary-General's trip around the Middle East was not a mission with a set of proposals, his men informed us. He wanted to learn, understand, to hear all sides.

Twenty years ago, the Lebanese were demanding that the Israelis obey the UN resolution and withdraw. The Israelis refused. Now the Israelis say they want to withdraw, but the Lebanese - fearful of Syria's anger if Golan was not returned at the same time - want conditions attached to 425. No wonder Mr Annan wants the Americans to carry the can.