Sunday, October 01, 2006

Let's prevent the next round

By Daniel Gavron, Haaretz

Things have come to a pretty pass when Avirama Golan, one of the sanest and most sensitive columnists writing in Haaretz, seeks to promote the Tel Aviv underground as a giant air raid shelter. Since the recent war in the North, the general atmosphere of malaise in the country has been oppressive, but Golan's article (Haaretz, September 26) seems to cross a new red line. We really must shake ourselves out of this mood of pessimism and negative thinking!

There is no reason to assume that a new round of hostilities is about to break out. We are planning to rehabilitate the North; Lebanese are reconstructing their country; the international force is being established. Neither side wants to renew the conflict that cost us both so much. The latest reports suggest that even Hassan Nasrallah, for all his posturing, is behaving himself, and reigning in Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

In the short term, then, things are not so bad. The cease-fire is not "fragile," as so many observers have been insisting, but pretty firm. Regarding the long term prospect, we should take to heart the most important lesson that can be learned from the recent confrontation: War is hell, and modern war has become even more hellish. What we should be asking ourselves is not how to protect ourselves when the next round breaks out, but how to prevent the next round from breaking out.

I would like to put in a plea for starting negotiations with everybody. Even when there is apparently nothing to talk about, a negotiating process should be launched. This means that Israel should talk to Hamas and Hezbollah. Why not probe and endeavor to find out what the other side wants? It may be that confrontation is inevitable, but surely it is worth trying to prevent it, to postpone it or to divert it into non-violent channels. The fact that two enemies are talking to each other does not prevent them from shooting at one another, but armed conflict is less likely while negotiations are going on. As former U.S. President Bill Clinton noted recently, during the peace process of the Oslo years, the casualty toll on all sides declined notably.

Let us assume that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is insoluble at this time. Let us speculate that it will take generations to arrive at a permanent solution. This does not mean that we should not open negotiations, with the full recognition that they might continue for years, or even for decades.

During the period of these negotiations ---let's say 10 years -- contacts can be maintained, minor problems can be settled, details can be resolved on an ad hoc basis, tensions can be defused and armed conflict prevented, or at least put aside.

What I am proposing is the establishment of a Permanent Negotiations Forum, PNF, which would be divided into subcommittees dealing with Israel and the Palestinians, Israel and Lebanon (including Hezbollah,) and Israel and Syria. Representatives of Israel, the Palestinians, the Lebanese, and the Syrians could be joined on these committees by representatives of Egypt and Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, supplemented by facilitators from the United States, Canada, Japan and Europe.

I would go further: Other local and regional conflicts should establish their own PNFs: India and Pakistan, China and Taiwan, the United States and Iran, the various African trouble spots. There could even be an exploratory PNF between the West and Al-Qaida. While this might seem to be a ridiculous suggestion, it should be pointed out that nobody outside that organization really knows what Al-Qaida wants. No representative of Al-Qaida has ever explained why the Twin Towers were destroyed.

Osama bin Laden has been seen on a video boasting that, as an engineer, he knew the towers would collapse after the planes hit, but even there he did not explain why he planned and executed the attack.

Experts from both the Muslim world and the West have pontificated about Al-Qaida's motives, suggesting that they want to expel foreign troops from Mulsim lands, but there has never been an authoritative statement from Al-Qaida to that effect.

An overarching PNF to coordinate the regional committees could be established as an international body under the aegis of the United Nations. Kofi Annan might consider taking it on, following his retirement as UN secretary-general, or maybe it should be headed by someone like Nelson Mandela or Bill Clinton.

Let there be a continuous dialogue wherever there is a potential conflict. Let mankind trade words instead of bullets and bombs. Permanent negotiations may not stop war, but surely they will lessen the risk of armed conflict breaking out.

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