- Israel issued a warning yesterday that the daily running
street battles between Israelis and Palestinians could erupt into a regional
conflict that would engulf the Middle East and stretch across the Mediterranean
- During a visit to London, Shlomo Ben-Ami, the Israeli
Foreign Minister, painted a far bleaker picture of the implications of
the month-long crisis gripping the Middle East than have previously been
set out by Israeli leaders.
- Mr Ben-Ami was a leading figure for almost a decade in
the negotiations with the Palestinians, which collapsed last month. Yesterday
he appealed to Tony Blair for help in persuading Yassir Arafat, the Palestinian
leader, to enforce a ceasefire and resume talks before it was too late.
He made similar calls to European leaders in Paris earlier in the day and
today is due in Washington for talks with President Clinton, who has only
weeks left in office to broker a peace agreement.
- Mr Ben-Ami said that the longer the present "low
intensity conflict with the Palestinians continued the bigger the risk
that it would lead to a regional escalation. There are already fears of
fresh fighting on the northern border with Lebanon, which could drag in
Syrian forces as well. Also, the militant mood on the street across the
Arab world could force moderate leaders into direct confrontation with
- Mr Ben-Ami said: "This is why we say to the Europeans:
You have high stakes here., It is the stability of the Mediterranean "
maybe even of Europe " that is at risk.
- One flashpoint that would push the street battles in
the West Bank and Gaza into a virtual state of war could happen on November
15, when the Palestinian leader has threatened unilaterally to declare
an independent state.
- If that happened, Mr Ben-Ami said, Israel would reluctantly
respond in kind with a "defensive disengagement from the Palestinian
areas. The move would effectively mean that the main areas of disputed
land, such as East Jerusalem and the Jewish settlements in the West Bank
and Gaza, would be incorporated into the Jewish state and the main Palestinian
population areas sealed off by the Israeli military.
- "We will be obliged to take measures of defensive
disengagment in case the Palestinians declare unilaterally, Mr Ben-Ami
told The Times. "A unilateral declaration means you signal the end
of the peace process " nothing binds us any more.
- While insisting that he remains an optimistic and committed
to a negotiated settlement, he said the peace movement in Israel was in
danger of collapse unless a breakthrough was achieved soon.
- The centre-left coalition of Ehud Barak, the Prime Minister,
is holding on to power by a thread, and the right-wing opposition would
return to power if elections were held today.
- "The Palestinians, response to this wave of violence
is threatening to shatter the peace camp in Israel, he said. "We spent
a lifetime trying to build a modus vivendi with the Palestinians. We see
the work of our lives collapsing before our eyes. The threat is that this
will be the day of the hawks " the Palestinian hawks and the Israeli
- Although all sides to the conflict agreed on the provisions
of a ceasefire last month at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit in Egypt, the deal
failed to halt the violence. The search for a solution has been complicated
by next week,s American presidential elections, which will seriously weaken
President Clinton,s influence in the region. In part that is why Mr Ben-Ami
made his appeal for help yesterday to Britain and other European leaders.
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