NATO's Kosovo precedent worries Israel, pleases the Palestinians

By Steve Rodan
Friday, April 9, 1999

JERUSALEM - Two weeks after the NATO offensive against Yugoslavia, Israeli and Palestinian officials are separately concluding that NATO and the West might very well intervene in a future conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Last month, Italy's ambassador to Israel, Gian Paolo Cavarai, raised such a possibility during a meeting of diplomats with Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon.

Ministry sources said Sharon was stunned that a NATO ambassador would raise the prospect of NATO intervention in the Arab-Israeli conflict just several days after the March 24 launch of the alliance's campaign against Yugoslavia. The sources said that in a subsequent meeting of senior officials, Sharon said Israel could face a similar situation to Yugoslavia.

Sharon's scenario was that the Israeli Arab minority -- comprising 20 percent of the country's population -- would call for autonomy. Many Arab towns in north skirt the West Bank and in the southern Negev are minutes away from the Hebron area. At least one Arab party in the current elections campaign has called for Arab autonomy.

"They way Sharon sees it is that the West would find Yugoslavia a precedent to intervene in our part of the region," a senior government source said.

Israel's response to the NATO offensive, government sources said, is intentionally vague. On one hand, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu consistently expresses support for the NATO air offensive. On the other hand, Sharon warns of the consequences of the NATO strikes and an independent Kosovo.

For U.S. officials, Sharon's warnings could serve as a basis for a Jewish lobby against the NATO campaign. In his meeting with U.S. Jewish leaders on Monday in New York, Sharon said the Kosovo Liberation Army has obtained significant aid from terrorist organizations backed by Iran, including the mujahadeen fighters in Afghanistan, Hizbullah and Osama Bin Laden, accused of blowing up two U.S. embassies in Africa last year.

Sharon said an independent Kosovo would enable Islamic terrorism to spread throughout Europe. He appealed to U.S. Jewish leaders to call for an end to the fighting in Kosovo.

"As faithful friends of the United States, we are expecting from it and NATO to do whatever they can to stop the suffering of innocent people and to renew as soon as possible negotiations and a mutual agreement between the parties," Sharon was quoted as saying.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is expected to seek clarification of Sharon's remarks. Officials expect the issue to be fully discussed next week when U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk holds talks with Israeli leaders.

Netanyahu's office issued a statement that said Sharon was expressing a personal opinion. But in a radio interview on Thursday Netanyahu refused to criticize or disagree with his foreign minister.

As the prime minister put it, Sharon was looking ahead when he warned of the dangers of an independent Kosovo. "Minister Sharon raised speculation that could happen in the long term," Netanyahu said. "We are not right now in the long term. This concerns his personal assessments."

Many Israeli analysts said Netanyahu and Sharon appear to be playing a game of good cop and bad cop. "It is reasonable to assume that there was talk of this with the prime minister and meetings of the inner Cabinet," Foreign Minister David Levy said. "But it is characteristic of Mr. Netanyahu to say something that completely contradicts his foreign minister. The question is if there were consultations and this was the result then the government is speaking in two voices."

Knesset member Yossi Sarid of the opposition Meretz Party said he doesn't understand what the government policy is achieving. He said Sharon's warnings of an Islamic Kosovo has not won Israel any friends.

"He's acting like an elephant in a china shop," Sarid said in a radio interview on Thursday. "It is simply not understandable and irresponsible. Netanyahu and Sharon are discovering America.

Palestinian officials have been more circumspect. Most PA officials, including PA Chairman Yasser Arafat, have refused to reflect on Kosovo. The exception has been Communications Minister Imad Falouji, who is connected to the Hamas movement and supports Islamic efforts in Kosovo.

At a meeting on Wednesday night, PA sources said, senior officials acknowledged that they have not drafted any positions on the NATO air strike and its affect on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. One minister, the sources said, confessed to switching the television channel every time the news focuses on Yugoslavia.

"At this point, there is no thinking whatsoever in the PA [on Kosovo]," a PA source said.

But there are exceptions. PA Cabinet Secretary Ahmed Abdul Rahman has been thinking about the ramifications of a NATO strike. His conclusion is that the Palestinians can only benefit. His scenario is that the Palestinians, bolstered by support for and recognition of a state, could press NATO and the West for intervention if a conflict erupts between the Palestinians and Israel.

"There is a new international situation," Abdul Rahman said. "We must make it clear that what is happening in Yugoslavia must serve as a lesson to Israel to withdraw from its current policies before something similar happens it as what is now taking place in Yugoslavia."

At first, senior PA officials played down Abdul Rahman's remarks, first made on PA radio on Monday. But by Tuesday, officials decided they were worth highlighting and several Palestinian dailies published his remarks on their front page.

Al-Qaq, the Palestinian analyst, warns against viewing NATO strikes as helpful to the Palestinians. In the short term, he said, NATO intervention in the Arab-Israeli conflict appears tempting in balancing Israel's overwhelming military superiority in the region.

But NATO might be called to settle other conflicts that involve minorities in Arab countries, Al-Qaq said, in an assessment that echoes that of Arab League officials. A few examples, he said, the Coptic Christian minority in Egypt, the Christians in southern Sudan, the Shi'ites in Saudi Arabia.

"The long term is that this will have an effect on Arab national security," Al-Qaq said.

Friday, April 9, 1999

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