Crisis In The Middle East


Continuing uncertainty last night over whether the crisis summit called for today at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm al-Sheik will in fact be held, serves to underline how serious are the issues at stake in the crisis over the Middle East peace process. There is a risk of renewed and escalating violence between Israelis and Palestinians leading to much more regional involvement. Oil supplies and pricing are becoming more central. The consequences for world markets and growth are raised more clearly.

Because of dissatisfaction with the proposed agenda, Mr Yasser Arafat's senior advisers said he may not take part in today's summit meeting. Behind that lies a major Arab disenchantment with the peace process, at both political and popular levels. The sentiment is reciprocated on the Israeli side. This leaves intermediaries from the Arab world, the United States, the United Nations and the European Union increasingly helpless in their efforts to manage the crisis. Their short-term aim is to contain the violence, find means to calm passions and create the political space in which Israeli-Palestinian negotiations can be relaunched. Raw emotions on both sides make this extremely difficult to achieve.

Mr Arafat suspects the summit agenda is loaded against his position and his people. It cannot be assumed that he is fully in command of the rapid flow of events. Too obvious an attempt by him to dampen down popular militancy could rebound politically. Hence the importance of his demand for an international enquiry into the last 18 days' violence. It was provoked by General Ariel Sharon's walk on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and now seems set to have him included in an Israeli government of national unity. For the Israeli prime minister, Mr Barak, the invitation to General Sharon signifies the end of his negotiating partnership with Mr Arafat.

That basic fact underlies Israeli and Palestinian hesitations about participating in, and expecting fruitful results from, today's summit. It immensely complicates the task of international mediation and crisis management. If the present peace process is dead, the voices calling for more radical action in the Arab world will be heard more and more strenuously. The Arab summit called for later this month is expected to endorse demands for Israeli adherence to UN Security Council resolutions concerning the basic questions of the exchange of land and peace, the return of refugees and the future of Jerusalem which had become subsumed within the peace process. Such an unravelling would lead to the definitive collapse of the BarakArafat dialogue. Creating another one will be difficult in the extreme, as both men come under fundamental political pressure. Popular anger in the Middle East endangers several of its traditional authoritarian regimes and could give renewed credibility to the outcast states of Iran and Iraq.

This is, therefore, a first-class international crisis in the making, bringing together regional justice, international mediation and world economic stability. Ireland is particularly vulnerable to its malign effects. Through its new role on the Security Council from next January and by virtue of its EU involvement and good offices with most of the Middle East participants, there is an opportunity to play a constructive role in a most difficult set of circumstances.