Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Sharon Bars Palestinians from British Peace Conference as Scandals Mar Israeli Elections

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Sharon Bars Palestinians from British Peace Conference as Scandals Mar Israeli Elections

Article excerpt


One of the most underreported conferences of the year took place Jan. 14 in London, where 15 delegates from the European Union, the United Nations, the U.S., Russia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt met to discuss the reform of the Palestinian Authority. Ironically, no major Palestinian officials were present-thanks to the opposition of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who, for reasons of domestic electoral politics, refused to allow Palestinian delegates to leave the occupied territories and attend the conference.

The British-sponsored event also met with opposition from Israel's Foreign Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who, a week before the session, clashed with his British counterpart Jack Straw on the telephone. Netanyahu made it clear that Israel disapproved of sending Palestinian delegates to Britain. Sharon adviser Zalman Shoval, former Israeli ambassador to Washington, also informed the BBC that Israel objected to the conference. He blamed Arafat-head of the PLO, its Fatah faction and the Palestinian Authority-for the Jan. 5 bombings in Tel Aviv.

Shoval also alleged that "this same Yasser Arafat sends people who are part of his terrorist organization in order to bask in the diplomatic limelight in London. If the Palestinians want to effect reform, reform should be effected [in the Middle East]."

Despite Israeli objections, which many felt clashed with earlier Israeli calls for Palestinian governmental reform, Palestinian representatives finally were able to take part in the conference via a video link from Gaza and Ramallah to the British Foreign Office conference room. "We had to find a way around the Israeli decision," explained Foreign Secretary Straw, "and that is what we did."

The conference revealed that the Palestinian Authority already has made significant progress in economic and financial reforms. Plans were laid for a further draft of a new Palestinian constitution, to provide for a prime minister and a bill of rights, and which will be made available in early February.

In addition, Straw announced that other proposals for reforming the public administration and the civil service would be forthcoming by mid-February. "Continuing terror attacks," he added, "underscore the fragile nature of all of these efforts and demonstrate the need for an immediate, comprehensive cease-fire."

Palestinians were both critical of and eager to participate in the conference and its reform objectives. The success of their reforms, and any cease-fire, they insisted, depended on an end to Israel's current restrictions of their movements, including curfews and road closings. Britain's Straw agreed, but added that the restrictions should not stand in the way of improving security. "They have responsibilities, prime responsibilities, to improve the security situation," he said. In other words, just because the Palestinians can't do everything because of the security situation, doesn't mean they can't do anything. Noting that the basis for the conference discussions was the creation of two independent and secure states, Straw was careful to attribute the idea to a June 24 Middle East policy speech by U.S. President George W. Bush. Straw also reaffirmed the commitment by the so-called Quartet-the EU, U.S., U.N. and Russia-to prepare a "road map" for progress toward that goal. …

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