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February 21, 2005
Speakers find hope for Middle East peace
BY Michael terrazas
Recent events have yielded renewed hope for peace in the Middle East, and the next six months will be critical to the process. So said Matthew Hodes, director of the Carter Center’s Conflict Resolution Program, to a crowd in 208 White Hall, Feb. 10.
Hodes shared the stage with Hussein Hassouna, Arab League ambassador to the United States, in a program titled “The Middle East: New Year, New Elections, New Peace Processes?” The event was sponsored by the Institute for Comparative and International Studies (ICIS), and ICIS Executive Director Bruce Knauft introduced the speakers to about 40 people in White Hall.
Having just participated in a Carter Center delegation to monitor the Jan. 9 elections for president of the Palestinian Authority, Hodes gave a detailed report. The delegation (which included former President Jimmy Carter, former New Jersey governor and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, and former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt) anticipated several concerns for the elections: Were the elections being held too soon after the death of Yasser Arafat? Would Israel allow the Palestinians sufficient freedom of movement to vote? How to handle voting in East Jerusalem, where disenfranchisement of Palestinian voters has been a problem in past elections?
Except for the East Jerusalem question, where despite concessions from the Israeli government tensions remained over voting rights and polling places, Hodes said each concern was addressed adequately, and the election of President Mahmoud Abbas was legitimate and—most importantly—peaceful. Sixty-five percent of registered voters cast ballots.
“What you saw,” Hodes said, “was a remarkable feeling of normalcy in the days leading up to the election.”
Hodes cited opinion polls that showed a significantly increased sense of optimism among both Palestinians and Israelis for lasting peace in the region, and crucial to the process will be several events expected to unfold between now and September. For instance, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has pledged to evacuate Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip; will he follow through? If he does, will Israel pull back from the table and declare other occupied territories and settlements off limits to Palestinians?
Another issue, Hodes said, is Hamas. The terrorist-linked organization did not participate in the Jan. 9 election, but it plans to campaign for the July elections for Palestinian legislative council. Will it support Abbas’ measured approach toward the creation of a Palestinian state, or will it demand more concessions from the Israelis?
Hassouna, whose remarks preceded Hodes’ and who spoke in the noncommittal yet optimistic language of diplomacy, said not only the Palestinian elections but those in Iraq promised new hope for the region. He called both elections imperfect but said they represented an important step.
“What did the people in each country vote for?” Hassouna asked rhetorically. “They voted for a change in the status quo. They voted for a better life.”
Hassouna said the elections in Iraq, particularly, offer an opportunity to put disagreements about the Iraqi war in the past and look forward to building a new, democratic government. As for Israel and the Palestinians, he said the framework for peace is there—
a return to Israel’s 1967 borders; Jerusalem as the capital of two states, one Israeli and one Palestinian; and a symbolic right of return for Palestinian refugees—but what is needed is a commitment from all sides, including the United States.
“We need a sustained effort by the United States and by the president of the United States,” said Hassouna, who said the Bush administration has been disengaged from the process. “We need the United States to advance the blueprint and to get involved.”