The UN cavalry has arrived, but is it too late to save the peace process?

'The Oslo agreement is dead. That is what this latest Middle East crisis is about'
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The Independent Online

When the old United Nations donkey comes stumbling into town, you know things are bad. And when Kofi Annan is riding the elderly beast, you know that the world is spinning out of control, that the Americans have thrown up their hands and that even their allies are feeling the ground shaking beneath their feet. Back in 1998, Annan was dispatched to Baghdad to save the peace when American threats against Saddam no longer produced results. When Nato's bombing of Serbia failed to produce a swift surrender last year, the much-maligned UN was asked to pass resolutions that would give Milosevic a face-saving defeat. And now - a devastating symbol, if ever there was one, of America's political defeat in the Middle East - that ancient quadruped, the UN donkey, is clip-clopping through the very streets of Jerusalem.

When the old United Nations donkey comes stumbling into town, you know things are bad. And when Kofi Annan is riding the elderly beast, you know that the world is spinning out of control, that the Americans have thrown up their hands and that even their allies are feeling the ground shaking beneath their feet. Back in 1998, Annan was dispatched to Baghdad to save the peace when American threats against Saddam no longer produced results. When Nato's bombing of Serbia failed to produce a swift surrender last year, the much-maligned UN was asked to pass resolutions that would give Milosevic a face-saving defeat. And now - a devastating symbol, if ever there was one, of America's political defeat in the Middle East - that ancient quadruped, the UN donkey, is clip-clopping through the very streets of Jerusalem.

The symbolism of Mr Annan's arrival in the Middle East yesterday cannot be exaggerated. Remember that it was the United States that was supposed to be running the so-called "peace process", with the Europeans paying for it (providing they didn't interfere in the details), while the Palestinians were supposed to make the necessary "concessions" (ie capitulation) for the "two sides" - Israel and "Palestine" - to sign their "peace of the brave". Note those quotation marks. For the whole sorry story of the Oslo agreement - perhaps the most flawed treaty ever negotiated for the Middle East - has to be put in parenthesis, its lies and clichés carefully defined to remind one of reality. For Oslo is dead. That is what this latest Middle East crisis is about. The killings are not endangering the "peace process" - as the Americans would have us believe - but proof that the "peace process" is already dead.

Mr Annan's visit thus symbolises not just the failure of the 1993 Oslo accord. It also reminds the Middle East that the original peace process - the one that doesn't need quotation marks - was a UN affair: UN Security Council resolution 242 of 1967 to be precise, the very foundation - according to then President George Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker - of the post-Gulf War Middle East peace. Baker specifically cited 242 when he invited Arab and Israeli leaders to the Madrid summit in 1991. Since then, we - with the help of the State Department, Israel and a very large number of journalists - have been encouraged to forget what 242 actually said.

Its contents are simple. It emphasised "the inadmissability of the acquisition of territory by war and the need to work for a just and lasting peace in which every State in the area can live in security" and demanded the "withdrawal of Israel's armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict". It insisted upon the termination of war and "respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area".

Now this is pretty strong stuff. Israel, like the Arab states, will be secure within its frontiers, although its forces must withdraw from the land occupied in the 1967 Middle East war: the occupied West Bank, the Gaza strip, Golan and Arab east Jerusalem. Only, of course, that didn't happen. Instead, we got the secretly negotiated Oslo agreement of 1993, which allowed Israel to renegotiate 242: henceforth, Israel would decide from which "territories occupied in the (1967) conflict" it would withdraw and from which occupied territories it would choose not to withdraw. The massive Jewish settlements, built illegally on Arab land, would not be abandoned. The frontiers of occupied Palestinian land would remain in Israeli hands. And so would Arab east Jerusalem, with its Islamic holy sites. Jerusalem would be the "eternal and unified capital" of Israel.

The Americans, preposterously claiming to be "honest brokers" in the negotiations between their closest Middle East ally and the forgiven "terrorist" Arafat, went along with Israel's ambitions. And when at last, after the predictable collapse of the Camp David talks in July, Arafat baulked at the "sort of sovereignty" (this imperishable phrase courtesy of US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright) he might be allowed in Jerusalem, President Clinton appeared on Israeli television to threaten him into submission, warning that the US embassy might be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem if he didn't fall into line, adding that Arafat was to blame for the Camp David débâcle.

And now, so great is the sense of political collapse and danger, so impotent the United States, so hopeless the Oslo agreement, that the UN - derided by Israel, humiliated and almost bankrupted by the United States' failure to pay its dues, distrusted by almost all the western powers - is called upon to save us all from war. Can Mr Annan succeed? Not with the Oslo agreement. For the Palestinian uprising represents its hollowness, its lack of fairness, its injustice towards the weaker party, the Palestinians.

And how typical that journalists, with so short an institutional memory of past threats, have allowed the Israelis to set the news agenda over the past 11 days and thus obscure the truth. Listening to Israel's spokesmen on radio and television, you'd think it was the Israelis who were under Palestinian occupation, rather than the other way round.

Arafat has failed to control the violence, Mr Barak announces. And the press dutifully ask if this is true. Arafat doesn't want peace. Reporters ask if he doesn't want peace. Mr Barak says that the "peace process" is over - how the Palestinians must have loved this one - if Arafat does not call off his men. And we journalists ask if this means the end.

Surely the truth is that the Palestinians want Oslo to end, that it is time that it did end, that all the bits of paper signed by Arafat have produced an animal even more pathetic than the UN donkey, an abortion of a "state" that will forever harbour the resentment and fury of a people who have been cheated of a real nation with a real capital. And in the end, both sides may have to reconsider - as an alternative to war - a return to the original peace proposal: the implementation of UN Security Council resolution 242.

If Israel gives up the land it occupied in 1967 - all of the land, not bits of it - and if all the nations of the area are secure, then there is, perhaps, a chance of a real settlement in the Middle East. The Arabs - all of the Arabs, not just our friendly dictators - must accept Israel's existence within its international borders and the Arabs must get back the land that they lost in 1967. Yes, it's a boring old formula. We've almost grown tired of it. Oslo sounded so romantic at the time. But 242, in the end, is probably the only show in town. Enter Kofi Annan.

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