Subject: LAT: E. Timor Points a Way for Mideast

L.A. Times September 29, 2002

PEACE PROCESS E. Timor Points a Way for Mideast

* Strong U.N. action can lead to a peaceful transfer of power.

By IAN URBINA, Ian Urbina is associate editor of the Middle East Report, a publication of the Middle East Resarch and Information Project.

WASHINGTON -- This past week the U.N. momentarily turned its attention away from the Middle East to congratulate itself on a job well done on the other side of the globe. There was much reason for pride, as delegates ushered in East Timor as the newest member of the international body.

Only three years ago, the small island north of Australia was being ravaged by increasing bloodshed and a brutal Indonesian military occupation. But thanks to the role of armed peacekeepers, the U.N., equipped with a clear political mandate and a strict timetable for implementation, succeeded in ending the conflict, dismantling a decades-long occupation and setting this century's first new democracy on its feet.

East Timor's flag now joins that of 190 other member nations--but before the international community moves on, it should pause and reflect on the lessons learned. As the conflict in Israel and the Palestinian territories again heats up, and solutions seem further away by the day, the case of East Timor may have some feasible instruction to offer.

In 1975, Indonesia invaded the small Portuguese enclave of East Timor, initiating a military occupation that killed an estimated 200,000 people, close to one-third of the population. The United Nations intervened to conduct a 1999 referendum, in which the nation's people voted overwhelmingly for independence. After widespread violence broke out in response to the vote, the U.N. dispatched 8,000 troops to establish security and ensure a full withdrawal of the Indonesian military and local militias. The U.N. then created a transitional government to administer the territory, exercise executive and legislative authority and support the process of state-building.

The intervention was generally successful, especially considering that this was the first time the international body has run a country. Not only did the U.N. help establish an independent justice system, backed by an impartial police force (one-third of whom are women), it also helped train 11,000 civil servants to run the country, fewer than half the bloated number under Indonesian rule.

The modest but highly professional defense force that the U.N. helped train to patrol the East Timorese borders offered the beginnings of a restored sense of security to the beleaguered nation. But one of the U.N.'s most important successes in East Timor was keeping to an ambitious timetable of progressively delegating responsibility for education, health and other services to local leadership, handing over the reins in full after only 33 months of transitional rule.

In the Palestinian territories, a U.N. intervention would need a clear political mandate, codified in a Security Council resolution, to end the occupation and stop the killing of civilians. As in East Timor, peacekeepers would need the power to disarm and arrest those from either side who would disrupt peace, and the intervention would adhere to a strict timetable, at the end of which would be a sovereign Palestinian state, with secure borders respected by all parties.

These would be preconditions for reestablishing good-faith negotiations, under U.N. supervision, to resolve issues of refugees, Jerusalem and water. The accomplishments of the transitional government in East Timor indicate that the U.N. is equipped to provide the space and oversight for a Palestinian-led reform movement in any effort to elect leaders, adopt a constitution, reform the financial system and overhaul the security forces.

With U.N. assistance, the settlement process, too, is reversible. As one of the most densely populated countries on the globe, Indonesia suffers from severe overcrowding, and it was mainly economics--not religion or politics--that drove more than 100,000 Indonesian settlers to migrate to East Timor. Recent studies indicate that the same is generally true for the settlers in the Palestinian territories. A largely overlooked poll released in July by the Israeli organization Peace Now found that for 77% of the settlers it was not ideology but "quality of life" issues, such as cheap land prices, tax breaks and reduced mortgages, that brought them to the West Bank. The poll also found that 68% of settlers said they would leave immediately and peacefully if the Israeli government demanded it. These statistics betray a pragmatic and hopeful pro- spect: With the right combination of financial incentives and political will, a peaceful withdrawal is possible.

The process would not be easy. For more than 20 years, the official, if unenforced, U.S. position has been to oppose new settlements. For even longer, the U.N. has pointed to their illegality under international law. But the Israeli population in the West Bank has steadily increased, topping 200,000 in the most recent count, plus about 175,000 who live on territory annexed by the city of Jerusalem. Left to its own accord, Israel, like Indonesia, will not institute a withdrawal. Pressure from the U.N. will be required, and peacekeepers will need to assume the tasks of evacuating settlers and dismantling the settlements--both likely to be politically impossible for any Israeli government to do by itself.

This type of intervention can only occur with U.S. support. In the case of East Timor, the Indonesian government long refused to permit a U.N.-backed peacekeeping force to enter the fray. The U.S. supported Indonesia for decades, but as the occupation received more attention, the U.S. shifted its position, eventually severing economic and military aid. Within days of that action, the Indonesian government reversed its stance and peacekeepers were en route.

Since the start of the recent wave of Mideast violence, the U.N. has drafted several proposals for an intervention, but the U.S. has vetoed each one. If calm is to be restored, the U.S. will have to help facilitate U.N. involvement by exerting a pressure similar to that it eventually applied on Indonesia.

Aside from U.N. intervention, another important factor in ending the occupation of East Timor was the grass-roots international solidarity movement whose tireless work in cities across the globe--staging protests, teach-ins, film festivals and letter-writing campaigns--helped mobilize international public opinion. The strength of this solidarity movement was in part a result of the wisdom of the leadership of the East Timor resistance, which engaged in a largely nonviolent struggle.

But Yasser Arafat's leadership is a far cry from that of East Timor's Jose Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmao. The prospect for an end to the Israeli occupation endures despite, not because of, the Palestinian leadership. The Palestinian Authority's lack of strategic vision has ceded the struggle to a logic of retribution. The morally bankrupt and politically counterproductive suicide bombings add a significant barrier to the already uphill battle of the international solidarity movement working for a military withdrawal from Palestinian areas.

Still, hope must not be abandoned in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; nor should the exclusive focus on Iraq delay much longer a reengagement of the U.N. in the steadily deteriorating situation in the Palestinian territories. On the eve of the 1999 U.N. intervention in East Timor, the situation seemed beyond repair, and the international community had opted to look the other way. Three short years later, there stands a sovereign and democratic nation joining the U.N., a nation well on its way to full reconciliation with its former adversary. Let's not let things get even worse in the Middle East before taking decisive action.


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