In January 1996, I was dispatched by the Japanese government to observe the election of the Palestine Council and the president of the Palestinian Authority. Because Palestine was still under Israeli occupation, it was not a sovereign state: Sending international observers to such a region was unprecedented. It grew out of common interests shared by the Palestinians, who hoped to make the elections a step toward their independence, and by European countries and the United States, as well as Japan, who sought to support them.

Nevertheless, the Palestinian declaration of the statehood, which had been scheduled for May this year, has been delayed pending further negotiations.

It is fortunate that hopes for progress in the peace process have been rising since Prime Minister Ehud Barak of the Labor Party was elected in May to head the Israeli government. On Sept. 5, Barak met with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, and agreed to resume talks on the final status of Palestine and to seek to reach agreement within a year. In the following month, the two leaders met with U.S. President Bill Clinton in Oslo, Norway, and confirmed that agreement on the outline would be worked out by Feb. 13 next year.

Many thorny issues still remain in the Middle East peace process, including which state Jerusalem should belong to, how to return Palestinian refugees to their homelands, the form of the Palestine state and its boundaries, and how to treat the Jewish settlers.

It is strongly hoped that all these issues will be resolved before the target date of September next year. Any further delay in the Middle East peace talks would be a great loss, not only for the Israelis and Palestinians but for the entire international community.

The latter has expended enormous monetary and human resources in the quest for peace in the Middle East. The United Nations maintains peacekeeping forces in Jerusalem, southern Lebanon and the Golan Heights in Syria. UNTUO has been operating in Jerusalem for 51 years, the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force in the Golan Heights for 25 years, and the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon for 21 years.

UNIFIL, in particular, is engaged in a peacekeeping operation of the largest scale, with manpower of about 4,500 and an annual budget of $140 million; some 230 people have sacrificed their lives so far in its service. Meanwhile, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which was established in 1949, is operating 59 refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the west bank of the Jordan River, offering health, education and relief services to more than 3 million refugees, with its expenditures reaching $300 million a year.

Ten years ago, I visited one of those camps, “Camp K” on the West Bank, housing 1,000 refugees. Contrary to the conventional image of a refugee camp as a place of shabby tents, what I saw there — to my surprise — was a group of solidly built concrete structures, with each family occupying five to six rooms.

There have been endless requests for peacekeeping forces and relief for refugees, as regional conflicts continue to erupt in Africa and Europe in the aftermath of the Cold War. If the Middle East peace process is prolonged, that would adversely affect international resources for maintaining peace elsewhere.

I suspect that the international community, which has long been too tolerant toward the parties to the conflict, has been partially responsible for the protracted peace talks. Even though U.N. resolutions for peace have been ignored one after another, no effective steps have been taken. Should the peace talks fail to be successfully concluded by the target date of September next year, the international community should take such drastic measures as stopping provision of assistance to both Israel and Palestine and withdrawing the peacekeeping forces. Since it is impossible to let all refugees return to their homelands, they should be encouraged to assimilate themselves with their neighbors, to settle permanently in the places where they live, or to migrate elsewhere, so that the refugee camps can be reduced.

In recent years, Japan has become increasingly involved in Palestinian affairs. In 1996, it surprised the world by sending a 77-member delegation, including the present prime minister, Keizo Obuchi, to observe the Palestinian elections. The size of this delegation surpassed that of the 41-man team Japan sent to Cambodia in 1993 to observe the elections held under the supervision of the United Nations. This year, then Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura toured the Middle East and called for progress in the protracted peace process by presenting a four-point proposal regarding the southern Lebanon issue to all parties concerned. In addition, in October this year Japan sponsored a meeting to coordinate assistance to Palestine by inviting Arafat to Tokyo.

These active moves on the part of Japan have caused some concern among other countries, as reflected in a question posed by a foreign correspondent to Arafat at a press conference: “What do you think of the Japanese attempt to increase its political influence in the Middle East?”

Yet there is no reason why Japan should be influenced by concerns of this kind on the part of Western European countries. In the first place, the Arab-Israeli conflict is rooted in the double-tongued guarantee that both the Arabs and Israelis would have their homelands in Palestine, which Britain made to both sides, out of strategic necessity, in World War I. Moreover, during the second Middle Eastern war, both Britain and France invaded Egypt. Japan is the only major power with a clean slate in the Middle East, and is therefore perfectly fit to be a coordinator in the peace process.

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