Kofi Annan Calls for International Buffer' Force

NEW YORK - UN Secretary General Kofi Annan does not have much faith in the ability of Israelis and Palestinians to resolve their bloody conflict on their own.

NEW YORK - UN Secretary General Kofi Annan does not have much faith in the ability of Israelis and Palestinians to resolve their bloody conflict on their own.

He nods vigorously when asked if he supports the posting of an armed peacekeeping force to separate the adversaries. He expects that the 15 American monitors led by John Wolf will not be enough and believes the conflict probably cannot be ended without the intervention of a foreign buffer force, as has been done in other regions of the world.

"The monitoring mechanism that will be put in place next week is a beginning and it may be enough if the parties are able to break the cycle of violence. In the interim period, I would like to see an armed peacekeeping force act as a buffer between the Israelis and Palestinians," Annan said in an interview with Haaretz.

Until then, he urges Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) to muster the necessary strength to break the cycle of violence. "The international community has an obligation to support Abbas and to work with him," says Annan, immediately adding that the Israeli government could make it easier for him by easing some of the restrictions in the territories, so Abbas "would be able to indicate that there is hope, that there is progress and that we are moving forward."

Annan recognizes Israel's responsibility to protect its citizens, but he recommends that it take "proportionate measures," while acknowledging that "this is very difficult." He says that suicide bombers are "reprehensible and cannot be defended," but notes that following Israel's reprisal operations, the terrorists come back and the cycle of violence continues.

Essentially, Annan supports the approach that was adopted by Yitzhak Rabin, and later rejected by Ariel Sharon, namely, "to fight terror as if there are no negotiations and to conduct negotiations as if there is no terror." He deems it a "mistake" not to talk as long as violence continues. He is "encouraged" by Sharon's recent statements about his commitment to the peace process and says, "I have to give him the benefit of the doubt. And I expect that he will deliver and that he will engage in the peace process."

The UN secretary general, who can take credit for establishing the Quartet, also does not agree with Sharon's determination to isolate Yasser Arafat. He believes the Palestinian Authority chairman still has wide influence and that it would be better "to encourage him to work for the peace process and to work to support Mr. Abbas. They need to work together for the effort to succeed." Annan asks, "Do you influence him by not talking to him? Or do you have to talk to everyone in order to have a positive influence? The developments that led to the appointment of a prime minister who is compatible with Prime Minister Sharon and President [George] Bush came out of dealing with Chairman Arafat and getting him to take positive steps. So I think he has not been entirely negative."

Annan believes that calm will not come to the Middle East without a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "It is a crisis that inflames the masses in other countries. It is a crisis that inhibits some of the other leaders in the region from being more forthcoming in trying to achieve peace. It is a crisis that is exploited by the extremists and therefore it is absolutely essential that we resolve this conflict." Annan believes that a new Middle East is possible and even discerns signs of change in the Palestinians' attitude toward Israel, citing a recent Congressional report that found a significant decrease in the anti-Semitic material in Palestinian textbooks. In sum, he says, "I really think that if we do make peace you will see a different Middle East."

Annan returned to New York two days ago from a visit to Washington, where he discussed the Quartet's potential contribution to the implementation of the road map with top administration officials. He says that Bush repeatedly affirmed his commitment to the plan. Annan was heartened by how "Bush committed his own personal prestige and brought the two leaders to Aqaba to discuss this."

Annan is well aware of Israelis' ambivalent feelings toward the UN. Accenting the positive, he points out the important role the organization played in the state's founding and says there are some signs of a positive change in the UN's treatment of Israel, including the appointment of Israelis to head important committees. He rejects the accusations that the UN was unduly benevolent toward nations like Libya, whose representative is now chairman of the UN Human Rights Commission, or Syria, which now enjoys the honor of a seat on the Security Council. Annan explains that these positions and honors rotate among member countries and that there's nothing he can do about it. But he adds that the Libyan representative has been "quite fair" in his chairing of the commission.

The UN Secretary General spoke at length about the Palestinian refugee issue, noting that UNRWA carries the brunt of the burden for the daily care of the refugees. He rejects Israel's criticism of the organization on security matters, saying, "The responsibility of public order in the refugee camps and security falls on Israel. We are offering humanitarian assistance and welfare services." Annan says that he discussed the matter with Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and told him: "No evidence of formal complaints has ever been given to UNRWA. If you have these serious accusations, come to us and tell us. We will investigate every complaint and discipline the people. But making blanket accusations is not only hurtful, it undermines the work of a very effective organization that is helping thousands of Palestinians."

Annan says the refugee problem should be resolved at the negotiating table between Israel and the Palestinians, with the support of the Quartet and the international community. But until another agreement is reached on the matter, UN Resolution 194 is "still on the books and still valid."

Annan: "I'm not certain that all the refugees would want to go back. There may be some other arrangements and other supplements and compensation and a whole package that may come out of negotiation."