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The Damascus Conference Versus the Conference of the Fall Grandstanding at the Expense of the Palestinians

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The secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, presented an important report to the Security Council this week. The report returns to the forefront the issue of disarming Hizbullah as a cornerstone to enabling the Lebanese state to recover full sovereignty over its territory. Ban Ki-moon called for implementing the commitment to dismantle all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias and disarm the Palestinian militias operating in Lebanon. He asked Syria and Iran to cooperate in this effort and halt all military supplies and support for these militias. He spoke at length about Palestinian organizations headquartered in Damascus and other groups like Fatah-Islam exploiting Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and using their camps. The secretary general said that Fatah and Hamas sometimes fight in Lebanon, as they do in Gaza; he added that he had received information about Damascus' facilitating the flow of weapons and fighters across the Syrian border into Lebanon, and about Hizbullah's training of other militias and rebuilding its military capacities, in violation of Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for dismantling and disarming militias. Ban Ki-moon added that he had received information about preparations carried out by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, headquartered in Damascus, for "operations" in Lebanon, and that this organization "has a close relationship with Syria and Hizbullah, and receives material support and training from Iran." This information appears at a time when Damascus is preparing for a conference from the 7th to the 9th of next month to confront the "Conference of the Fall" being prepared by the White House to treat the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and launch the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The Damascus Conference considers the Fall Conference an attempt to eliminate Palestinian national rights, "which requires wide-scale national and popular movement through historical mechanisms and tasks, led by escalating resistance against Zionist occupation, calling on Arab countries to shoulder their responsibilities, and rejecting normalization with the enemy," according to the working paper that has been published by the conference. This paper rejects all of the agreements that have been signed with Israel, considering them "invalid and non-binding."

Damascus' sponsorship of Lebanese militias and Palestinian factions isn't new, but today it is more violent and "generous" in Iranian terms, which means these groups can be offered military supplies and equipment and fighters in order to challenge the Lebanese state, the Palestinian Authority and international resolutions. Syrian President Bashar al-Asad found no "Arabist" objection to his support for Turkey's invasion of Iraq, on the grounds that this would be an invasion against a Kurdish terrorist party in Iraq, as if Iraq is suddenly no longer classified as a state, or Arab land. Such positions do not necessarily represent short-sightedness or caprice; more likely, they are a direct investment in self-protection. The Syrian leadership found in the vehement national anger in Turkey an opportunity to save itself from international pressures and a quasi-gift that allows it to avoid difficult matters, regardless of whether or not Turkey is correct in its stances. The announcement by the president of an Arab state that he understood the decision to invade the territory of another Arab state, by a neighbor, is an indication of how distant Syria is from the Arab state system. Thus, if we understand the Syrian leadership's exit from the Arab fold and move toward the Iranian one, its blackmail of the Palestinian cause and exploitation of militias in Lebanon should be put a halt to, one way or another.

As a start, if Damascus wants to stir up the mechanisms of escalating resistance against Israel, then it should do so on the Syrian-Israeli border. This front is available for resistance and nothing can hold things up here except a Syrian decision and the Syrian regime. Anything less is merely another act of deceit toward the Palestinians. If the Damascus Conference wants to cancel the Conference of the Fall, all that Syria should do is open the Syrian-Israeli front for the resistance that it is promoting. Syrian territory is occupied, and Syria has enough weapons, men, Arab and Persian volunteers, and other Muslims, and "pure" money from Iran to liberate Palestine. So let Syria, Iran, the Palestinian factions and Lebanese militias step up and launch resistance from Syrian territory this time. The fall conference won't be about miracles, and won't lead to an immediate Palestinian-Israeli peace. However, it won't be about rhetoric and grandstanding, which have begun to distinguish the Damascus conference.

For its part, Israel appears to be a partner, indirectly, in making the Damascus Conference a success. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni are doing quite well in peddling honeyed talk about peace and stalling when it comes to the actual requirements of this goal. They are a living example of Israel's lack of readiness for peace. In this, Israel is a partner of the leaders of the Damascus Conference, and particularly the regime that is hosting the event, since they all see peace as a vital threat to their existence. Another common denominator among all of these sides is the inability to settle things military, through resistance or invasion. Israel believes that it can have a military victory, but it is consumed by fear and unable to carry this out. The others believe that they have the tools to inflict defeat on Israel, but they are truly ill-prepared for resistance. It is a game of death that is being played by all, at the expense of Palestinians, Lebanese, Iraqis, Israelis and Americans as well. Thus, if US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is serious about making the fall conference a success, she must be strict when she sends messages to the host of the Damascus Conference as well as the Israeli guest in Annapolis, Maryland. For the Israeli leadership, the message must be as follows: the US is asking the state of Israel for a deadline on a serious political process that leads to a Palestinian-Israeli agreement on the structure of peace between them, and the establishment of a Palestinian state living in peace and security next to Israel.

In other words, if it is impossible for the fall conference, scheduled to take place during the last week of November, to produce clear tracks for a permanent solution and the permanent status of the Palestinian territories, the White House should produce a serious negotiation process, with time-tables and a final deadline. If this is impossible, there is no need to hold a conference at this time. It would be better to postpone it until Israel is ready to be serious about working for peace, or cancel it altogether.

At the least, the fall conference should involve negotiation on the final status arrangements, based on certain fundamentals, and should be a conference of negotiations in light of the inability to turn the gathering into a conference of implementing commitments, visions, and the road map to the establishment of a Palestinian state. Today it's being said that Olmert is weak and unable to make deals. The same is said about the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, in Israeli circles. The goal can be summed up as providing justifications for Israeli stalling when it comes to the requirements and deals that need to be made for a permanent peace. The current stalling can be observed in the lack of readiness to make any reference to the 1967 borders: the borders of defeat and victory, the borders of peace, the borders of coexistence, the borders that have entered the mind of every international negotiator of the road map to an Arab-Israeli peace.

Today, the Israeli leadership isn't ready to talk about borders. In fact it wants to erase them and ignore them, and by this it seeks to erase the vision of the establishment of a Palestinian state and erase the idea of ending Israeli occupation; it wants a new dictionary for negotiations. The duty of US President George W Bush and Secretary of State Rice is for them to say to Olmert and Livni that negotiating with the Palestinians must be the basis. The recognized basis for this are the 1967 borders, UN Security Council Resolution 242, and the principle of exchanging land for peace. Perhaps these borders could be modified based on land exchange, but the agreement must involve putting a certain ceiling on the exchange of land in the West Bank based on the 1967 borders.

In this way, the Conference of the Fall can be turned into a serious process with a deadline for active negotiations that lead to a solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In the next ten days, Rice must understand that Arab states are truly unable to accept their invitations to the conference if it lacks these goals as a minimum. Bush and Rice should stop believing that the Arabs are coming to the conference, no matter what it comprises, and under any condition. This act of political suicide is unlikely to happen and the US and Israeli leaderships should understand this. If Israel insists that now isn't the time for negotiations, then the Arabs will not attend the Conference of the Fall, no matter how much Bush shouts, and no matter how much Rice stares with determination.

Of course, there is a benefit for Palestinians, supported by the ranks of Arab moderates, in attending an international conference dedicated to the Palestinian issue, after spending seven years experiencing the US' boycott of the Palestinian Authority and the international boycott of the Palestinians. Since there is awareness about this benefit, Arab moderates will be satisfied by a modest conference, as long as it is useful. They know that there is the possibility of saving the fall conference from collapse, and they believe that the Palestinian interest dictates that this opportunity not be lost; they insist on not giving in to Israeli intransigence so easily. This is an opportunity, not only to see an effective and serious US role, but also to see the international community get involved in the Palestinian-Israeli issue.

Here, we can see the importance of the European and Russian roles at this historical juncture. The European Union countries, led by France and the UK, should play a leading role at this time, in the countdown to the fall conference. We can learn whether Russia is truly serious about its interest in the Palestinian issue and ready to take steps on this front, and not just issue pretty statements. These states must be clear in their messages on three fundamental topics: Israel, Syria and Iran, and the US. The content of the messages should involve an insistence on implementing the Security Council resolution that adopted the Road Map to establishing a Palestinian state - this insistence should be clear and serious. The time has come for seriousness when it comes to international resolutions on Palestine.

The failure to push seriously for a successful conference in the fall will mean a devastating failure for the conference. This in turn will result in destroying the two-state solution and threatening the Palestinian Authority, headed by Abbas and the government of Salam Fayad. The two represent the most moderate of all Arab leaderships. Their collapse means, practically speaking, the collapse of movement toward Arab moderation. This is because there is no room for grandstanding against them when it comes to moderation or patriotism, or defending the Palestinian interest. If Israel and the US administration believe that Arab moderates are merely a herd that can be led in any direction and exploited, they should be warned once again: Arab moderation won't serve as a safety valve and a line of protection for Israel from Arab and Islamic extremism. This is not the task of these moderates. The task of Arab moderation is to adhere to a peaceful solution, coexistence and normalization, if Israel is serious about ending the occupation, establishing a Palestinian state, and halting the practice of avoiding the requirements of peace. Otherwise, Israel can confront extremism by itself - let it be responsible for wasting the negotiation option, so that it is isolated in confronting the option of armed resistance against it. Israel can opt for this path if the option of peace and negotiation fails. If this is Israel's choice, let it be, since Arab moderates won't act as an excuse for stalling when it comes to peace and negotiations, or resistance and conflict.

The powers-that-be in Israel appear convinced that the Syrian leadership constitutes the best protection for the Jewish state when it comes to the march of armed Arab-Muslim resistance to it across the long Syrian-Israel border. The Israelis believe that messages of "an understanding" between them and the Syrians are clear, whether this involves a truce or a military confrontation. Within Israel and in American circles, there are those who are preparing for a qualitative jump in Israeli-Syrian relations, because of developments in the Syrian-Iranian relationship, to the extent of crossing the red lines in developing rockets and banned weapons, arming Hizbullah, and allowing it to train and arm other militias in Lebanon. The report by Ban Ki-moon discusses Hizbullah's capabilities, the Syrian and Iranian role in strengthening this capability and the Palestinian and other multi-national militias, while Lebanon has once again noted that it is being prepared to become an arena for proxy wars with Israel, so that wars are kept distant from Syrian and Iranian cities.

However, this time the wager will fail, despite all of the attempts. The failure will be helped by the Damascus Conference and the fall conference, while the greater failure will come at the hands of the Security Council, international resolutions and the report by Ki-moon, who clarified that he supported the state, sovereignty and independence, and not militias and their sponsors, who set up a state-within-a-state. He has shown patience and diplomacy in his discussions with Iran and Syria regarding Lebanon. He is telling anyone concerned, with the utmost diplomacy, determination and insistence, that the situation he faces is clear - supporting the state against militias and defending Palestinian refugees from being exploited by Palestinian militias and their sponsors, whoever they are.

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