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After Diplomatic Triumph in Iraq, Can U.N. Solidify Peace in Holy Land?

BY Michele Chabin

March 8-14, 1998 Issue | Posted 3/8/98 at 2:00 PM

 

JERUSALEM—Now that the Iraqi crisis appears to have been diffused—at least for the time being—Palestinians and some local Church leaders are hoping that the United Nations will focus its attention on the ailing Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

In particular, they hope that U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, whose diplomacy persuaded Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to permit unfettered access to weapons inspectors, will pressure Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians.

“I'm waiting for the United Nations to put the screws on Israel the way it put the screws on Iraq,” said a Palestinian Catholic resident of East Jerusalem.

Sitting in his souvenir store in the Old City of Jerusalem, the 60-year-old shopkeeper likened the plight of the Iraqi people, who have endured many hardships since the U.N.-imposed economic sanctions in 1991, to the lot of the Palestinians, who, despite limited self-rule, view Israel as an occupier.

Referring to the Israeli prime minister, he said, “[Benjamin] Netanyahu is worse than Saddam Hussein. He takes our land and seals off the West Bank on a whim. We Palestinians are suffering, just like the Iraqi people.”

Although Church officials flatly reject any attempts to compare Hussein, a despot who massacred thousands of his own people and invaded neighboring Kuwait in 1990, with Netanyahu, they, too, are looking to Annan to end the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate.

“We hope that the type of solution that was employed in the Iraqi situation will be used to force Israel to abide by all U.N. resolutions,” said Archbishop Lutfi Laham, patriarchal vicar of the Greek Patriarchate in Jerusalem.

Asked whether the Palestinians, too, could use some nudging, he said, “Both sides must fulfill their promises.”

Like Catholics everywhere, members of the Church in the Holy Land spent the past several weeks praying for a diplomatic solution to the escalating Iraqi crisis. In daily contact with the Vatican, they were soothed by the knowledge that Pope John Paul had encouraged Annan to travel to Baghad.

In mid-February, when American air strikes against Iraq appeared imminent, Archbishop Renato Martino, permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, sent Annan a personal message of encouragement from the Pope.

According to Archbishop Martino, the secretary general “was sincerely moved” by the gesture.

Upon his triumphant return to the U.N. headquarters in New York, Annan told hundreds of cheering employees, “There were millions of people around the world rooting for peace. That is why I say you should never underestimate the power of prayer.” (See related story, p. 4)

Local Catholics had more reason than most to heave a sigh of relief when tensions were diffused. According to Archbishop Laham, local clergy and parishioners—the vast majority of whom are Arabs—feared for their brethren in Iraq.

“The local Church was seeking justice for Iraq, especially in the wake of the U.N. embargo that has denied nutrition to the Iraqi people. We heard that 1 million children have died since the Gulf War seven years ago,” he said.

In addition, Archbishop Laham said, had the United States attacked Iraq, Saddam Hussein might have attacked Israel, killing or maiming many innocents.

Local Catholics had more reason than most to heave a sigh of relief when tensions were diffused.

“Our concern is for peace in the entire region: Iraq, Israel, Palestine. We're very, very relieved that a solution has been found, and we hope it will be the start of a better way of life for us all.”

One of the ironies of the crisis, say political observers, is the fact that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators held secret and not-so-secret meetings throughout the standoff. Though far from resolved, the issues discussed included the creation of a Palestinian airport and seaport in the Gaza Strip, as well as a travel route for Palestinians wishing to go between Gaza and the West Bank.

“With the media microscope pointed elsewhere,” one editorial writer commented, “Israelis and Palestinians had the time and space to hash out some of their differences. The Iraqi thing actually jump-started the stalled talks.”

While the Iraqi threat did speed up the peace process somewhat, it also reinforced long-standing fears.

The fact that thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza demonstrated in rallies where Israeli and American flags were burned, and where “Bomb Tel Aviv” was the rallying cry, did nothing to win the trust of ordinary Israelis.

In the Hebrew daily Ma'ariv, writer Nadav Haetzni said “The Palestinian people and its leadership crudely and clearly showed themselves in favor of Iraq, against the United States, and along the way exposed the fact that the Oslo process has not changed anything in their deep-seated hostility toward Israel.”

Haetzni quoted a survey, conducted during the crisis by the Palestinian polling company JMCC, showing that 94% of Palestinians supported Iraq; that 77% supported an Iraqi bombing of Tel Aviv; and that 80.5% believe the United States is employing a double standard in its dealings with Iraq and Israel.

These sentiments are freely expressed on the streets of predominantly Palestinian East Jerusalem.

Asked whether he was relieved that a war had been averted, a 25-year-old Palestinian Catholic named Ghazi said it “was a shame Tel Aviv wasn't attacked. It was Israel's fault that America tried to attack Iraq.”

Employing language that could only be described as anti-Semitic, he said, “One day, Israel and the Jews will try to rule the world through war. At heart, all Americans are Jews. The United Nations has to end the American double standard.”

The “double standard” argument that surfaced in the Arab world during the Gulf crisis has angered both Israeli and American Jews, who are appalled by comparisons between the Iraqi and Israeli governments.

In response to this charge, Moshe Fogel, director of the Israeli Government Press Office, said, “Israel's very existence has been threatened over the years by Arab armies on its borders. We need and want peace, but only a peace between the two parties. An agreement forced on the two parties is destined to fail.”

Iraq, he said, “is a dictatorship which killed its own citizens and used its power to grab oil resources from a neighboring Arab country.”

Fogel rejected the notion of a U.N.-brokered peace treaty.

“For the United Nations or any international body to decide on a solution and to impose it would be futile.”

He added that “the United Nations doesn't have a strong track record where Israel is concerned. Prior to the Six Day War, the U.N. troops [deployed to protect the Israeli-Egyptian border] in the Sinai withdrew when [then-Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser] asked them to.”

While not denying that their own peace process is foundering, Israeli military analysts stressed that there are other pressing problems in the Middle East.

Dr. Dany Shoham, a military expert at Bar Ilan University's Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Affairs, said that even if Iraq is ultimately disarmed— and that is a big “if”—non-conventional weapons abound in the region.

In addition to Iraq, he said, “Iran, Syria, Egypt, and Libya are all developing chemical and biological weapons at a rapid rate. Iran is evolving in the nuclear field as well, and it's said to be increasing its efforts with the help of the Russians, the Chinese, the North Koreans, among others.”

Although neither Shoham nor other sources would comment on the subject, Israel is also believed to have non-conventional weapons at its disposal.

Whereas Iraq is being carefully monitored, Shoham said, “There is only limited scrutiny of Iran. What people don't realize is that Iran and Iraq are more or less balanced in the chemical and biological spheres. Both have an inventory of chemical and biological weaponry, and both have the offensive capability to use them.”

Shoham expressed doubt that this latest showdown with Iraq will stop Saddam Hussein in the long term. Since the 1991 Gulf War, he said, “there have been variations and fluctuations [in the security situation].”

The U.N.-Iraq agreement, he said, “appears to be promising, but essentially it's just another fluctuation, a part of a continuing cycle.”

Michele Chabin writes from Jerusalem.