Fri, 07 Mar 2003

Can the world attain peace in Middle East?

Abdurrahman Wahid, Former President, Jakarta

In 1948, the state of Israel was established from a former British colony. Since then wars of independence and other forms of violence have plagued region.

So the "normal" course of events is violence; harsh words are the everyday staple, but people dream about peace, maybe led by what they see and hear on the news networks in different languages every day.

People take the position designed by their states and informal leaders, or they make decisions by themselves, usually by street demonstrations, but rarely in a peaceful manner.

Now there are nearly 200,000 American and 40,000 British soldiers in the area, together with their war machines, not to mention the war preparations of different countries in the region. The Middle East is once again on the verge of a large- scale war involving nearly all the countries of the area, as well as countries in Asia, Western Europe and the United States.

Two mind-sets contradict each other, each with the view that the other is committing "treason" against a common position that would ensure the achievement of everlasting peace for humankind.

Large states such as the United States and the United Kingdom are against other big states like Germany, France and Russia. World peace is at the same time threatened, as well as the goals to be attained by that process.

As a person far away in Southeast Asia, but still imbued by Islamic solidarity, this observer views the situation with a mixture of a yearning for peace as well as a sense of helplessness in stopping the war machine now at work.

He comes to the conclusion that, yes, peace can be attained in the Middle East. This can be achieved through finding or relating peaceful solutions both in the area of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iraqi dispute.

The first is achievable by establishing both the safety of the existence of the Israeli state and access for an independent Palestinian state to trade and industry. This could be realized if guaranteed by an independent and strong country outside the area, preferably one with a Muslim majority in its population.

The peaceful solution for the "Iraqi dispute" would be the halting of war preparations in that region, also with a guarantee from a third party, ideally the state that gives the guarantee for a peaceful permanent solution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute; with that kind of "double guarantee" the following things could be achieved.

First, "postponement" of war in both areas would mean the cessation of any armed conflict, which gives room for further negotiations between differing parties. Second, if peace can be "grabbed" at the last moment before war, which now looks impossible to avert, in the future other conflicts in the area could be solved through negotiation.

But if the U.S. decides to bomb Iraq, the question is whether this will last a year or 18 months. In short, avoidance of war is preferable to anything else at this time for that region.

The keys to avoiding war are the willingness of Saddam Hussein to step down and allowing the Palestinian state to become economically strong through free trade and industry, which could be realized with financial assistance, preferably a long-term loan of, say, US$1 billion.

A financially strong Libya could provide this kind of long- term credit to Palestine. In this way, a collection of several decisions would mean a peaceful solution to the current situation, which is necessary for the permanent solution of a multitude of disputes in the whole region.

And that means the removal of the need to settle all disputes in that area. Other disputes there, such as the division of Cyprus, can be solved through negotiations.

The armed conflict in Sudan, between the southern Christians and the state, can be solved permanently in this way, as already shown by both sides. The whole prospect of negotiations and guarantee-makings is open to all sides, but a non-Middle Eastern "man of peace", going around Middle Eastern countries to do so in the next months is necessary.

Someone trusted to be objective by the disputing states inside as well as outside the region is necessary. There is now a need for action by all those not preparing armed conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, as well as those not preparing the impending bombing of Iraq. Is there a nobler quest than that?

The above is abridged from the former president's presentation at a conference on world peace in Washington DC on Feb. 26. The conference was hosted by the Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace. Abdurrahman Wahid is a member of the Shimon Peres Institute.