No one should be misled by the delicate phrasing of the Group of Eight (G-8) foreign ministers: "We believe," they said in a statement last week, ahead of the summit meeting that began in Genoa on Friday, "that third-party monitoring, accepted by both parties, would serve their interests in implementing the Mitchell Report." Such declarations have their own inner dynamic, and a statement of this kind, to which the United States for the first time added its signature, could evolve into a position paper from which the way is short to a binding political declaration.
Israel is raising two fundamental objections to the stationing of an international force in the region. The first has to do with the question of the infringement on Israeli sovereignty, the second is related to Jerusalem's concern about the possible internationalization of the conflict.
Both contentions have overwhelming Palestinian and European rebuttals: namely, that Israel is in any case not the sovereign in the territories and hence cannot claim that its sovereignty is being violated; and, as to the internationalization of the conflict, the conflict is no longer a private matter that has to do solely with the interests of Israel and the Palestinians. It is not only the Arab states that are a party to it, but Europe and the United States are also liable to be adversely affected by it. Evidence of this, which is far from unimportant, was made manifest to Washington in the form of a semi-boycott of the United States conducted by Saudi Arabia.
The conclusion is that it is impossible to prevent the conflict from being internationalized. The question is whether Israel will be able to prevent international handling of its resolution. However, that question is no longer of any relevance. The fact is that the Mitchell Commission itself was an international body, even if it operated solely under the auspices of the United States, and it was the product of the Sharm el-Sheikh conference, which was attended by the most senior representatives of the United States and the European Union, alongside the king of Jordan, the president of Egypt and the secretary-general of the United Nations.
Here was the greatest achievement of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who succeeded in removing his problem from the bilateral geopolitical framework, channeling it into an international orbit, and forging around it a framework that is not very much different from that of the Madrid Conference of 1991. The American exclusivity in dealing with the conflict, which Israel had tried to entrench with all its might, was increasingly cracked until it disintegrated completely when President George W. Bush added his voice in support (albeit qualified) of sending a "third party" to the region.
Israel can now expect that from Genoa the discussion will revert once more to the United Nations Security Council, which is the only body with the power to decide if and how to dispatch an observer force and what authority it will be given. In principle there are several styles for setting up and activating an international force. It could be a force of unarmed military observers whose role will be to report violations of the cease-fire or to patrol demilitarized areas; or a peacekeeping force that would operate as a buffer between areas of combat; or forces that carry out more complex operations while displaying aggressive military and policing intervention, as in Bosnia; or forces whose mode of military activity will resemble that of the units sent to Kosovo.
The lesson of past experience is that an international force in any of these modes will not be able to interfere with military operations. This was the case in Lebanon, when Israel and the Hezbollah organization fought a full war under international oversight, in Hebron, where incidents continued unabated despite the presence of a UN force, and in other regions as well.
If an observer force cannot be of any concrete usefulness in resolving the political problem - nor is that its designated role - and it cannot prevent violent skirmishes, it still retains the vital role of acting as a lightning rod. Each side will have to behave a little better, in order to get a better report card.
In a region where an official cease-fire is declared but in practice war rages, the necessity of constantly bearing in mind the presence of an international force could become a brake, even if only temporary, against a broader deterioration.
Of course, Israel can choose the option of continuing to fight against every resolution to send an international force, to scream and kick against the world's capitulation to Arafat, and to turn in on itself after a formal decision on the matter. But it's also possible to flow with this tendency and act energetically to set convenient parameters for the character of the force's activity. Maybe jeeps in the familiar blue-and-white of the world body will even be able to help prevent infiltration across the dividing line.
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