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Middle East: unrest continues; Yasser Arafat may be free but has almost no power.



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MARK COLVIN: Another night, another pre-dawn incursion in the Middle East after Israeli infantry, backed by around 50 tanks, raided the West Bank town of Nablus, leaving two Palestinians dead and one wounded. Yasser Arafat may be free but, in reality, he has almost no power. He has few vehicles, no aircraft, and his only airfield has been destroyed. The Israelis are no longer occupying much territory but they reserve the right to go in whenever they feel they need to find more would-be terrorists, and the rhetoric on both sides remains as vitriolic as ever. So what price the international summit slated for early in the northern summer that is supposed to find a path towards peace?

 

Our foreign affairs editor, Peter Cave, joins me now from Jerusalem. From the perspective of Jerusalem, Peter, does the idea of a path towards peace look even remotely realistic, at the moment?

 

PETER CAVE: Certainly something’s got to be done. There is nowhere to go, at the moment. There is no trust at all between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and so if there is going to be something to kick things along, it is probably going to have to come from the outside. The Israelis, though, are extremely worried about the four-way deal—the US, Europe, Russia, UN quartet—that has organised this peace conference. They are very happy to have the United States as the main peacemaker because they feel—especially after the vote of the American Congress over the past 24 hours—that the Americans are pretty well on their side.

 

MARK COLVIN: But they don’t trust Europe, Russia or the UN?

 

PETER CAVE: Indeed not. They’ve been extremely wary of Europe; they are extremely wary of the UN—they’ve been very critical of the UN, especially the attempt to have an investigation of Jenin.

 

MARK COLVIN: At the moment, however, everything about this meeting, this summit, seems fairly vague. For instance, we don’t know anything more about when it is going to happen, in early summer—northern summer—and do we even know who is going to participate? Will it be prime ministers or presidents?

 

PETER CAVE: We don’t know who is going to participate. Certainly, the Israelis would like a regional conference of so-called friendly governments, along with a few others including the United States. Javier Solana has said, over the past few hours, that the conference will look at three issues: first the issue of security, trying to restore security negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians to get some sort of peace on the ground; reconstructing the Palestinian Authority, as you have just said, which has been totally destroyed; and then, finally, maybe starting some sort of peace talks, but who knows where, how, why or what?

 

MARK COLVIN: President Bush’s rhetoric talks about the Palestinian state not being founded on terror and corruption which is a warning, presumably, to Yasser Arafat; and on the other side, a warning to Ariel Sharon that there must be a negotiated end to occupation. Is either side showing any sign of going along with either of those things, at the moment?

PETER CAVE: It is all in the fine print. Ariel Sharon may well be prepared to say he’s going to end the occupation, but he’s very keen—his party is very keen—on maintaining buffer zones, and buffer zones would leave the Palestinian territories divided into what Archbishop Desmond Tutu last week called ‘Bantustans’. The Palestinians want a total withdrawal; they want the Israelis right out of there; and the Israelis, at this stage, have no intention of doing that. They are going to maintain those buffer zones, and there is very little common ground.

 

MARK COLVIN: Not to mention the personal problem of actually getting Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat into the same room. Peter Cave, in Jerusalem, thanks very much.