U.N. Panel Debates ‘Civilizations’ Peace Plan

By Marc Perelman

Published October 20, 2006, issue of October 20, 2006.
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A high-level group appointed by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan is prepared to issue a set of recommendations that could end up identifying the need for a peaceful Israeli-Palestinian settlement as a vital step in improving relations between Islam and the West.

Annan is expected to receive the final report next month from the Alliance of Civilizations panel that he established July 2005 to address Islamic-Western conflicts. Several panel members have been advocating for a clear statement about the vital need for a peaceful solution to the Palestinian conflict in helping diffuse the tensions between the West and Muslim countries. Others, however, would rather have a more holistic approach, preferring that thematic issues such as education or immigration, as well as other conflict areas, get as much attention in the final report.

The issue is likely to play out at the panel’s final meeting in Istanbul next month, when participants are planning to submit their recommendations.

Former French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, and Andre Azoulay, longtime adviser to the Moroccan king, are the two leading advocates of putting forth a political agenda, and they believe that their “Palestine first” doctrine will be reflected in the final document.

“Several of us felt it was not enough to produce yet another toothless report with nice recommendations about the media, youth, education, etc.,” Vedrine said. “We need to be more realistic in dealing with the key political problems of the Middle East, starting with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nice books for kids in Israel and Palestine are fine, but making peace is better.”

The high-level group was set up by Annan in July 2005, adopting an initiative by Spain and Turkey following terrorism attacks on their capitals. It is meant as a direct response to the controversial “clash of civilizations” theory promoted by Harvard professor Samuel Huntington in the early 1990s.

The theory has gained currency since the September 11, 2001, attacks and the subsequent terrorist bombings from Bali to London, as well as from recent outbursts of violence in Muslim countries following reports of mistreatment of the Koran by American troops, the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish publication and the recent remarks by Pope Benedict XVI suggesting that a violent strain marks Islam.

Shamil Idriss, deputy director of the U.N. office of the Alliance of Civilizations, declined to comment on the internal debates, as did several of the panel’s members. Idriss did say that “it is pretty clear that this is, at least in part, a political initiative in that the members made clear they would need to address political issues to provide their recommendations.”

Rabbi Arthur Schneier, a member of the alliance and chairman of the New York-based Appeal of Conscience Foundation, noted that “the mandate is broad in geographical terms,” however, he declined to comment more specifically before its release.

The report is scheduled to be delivered to Annan on November 13 at the conclusion of the group’s final meeting in Istanbul. It will likely consist of two parts: one that deals with the political issues, and the other with thematic areas such as education, youth, immigration and the media. It also will include an action plan for implementation at the institutional and civil society levels.

During a meeting of the panel in New York on September 5 and September 6, Vedrine and Azoulay proposed language that would emphasize the need to recognize two states, Israel and Palestine — a proposition that may prove tricky for some Muslim members, first and foremost former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami. Still, Vedrine expressed confidence that the panel, as well as Annan, would endorse the political agenda.

He said that stressing the centrality of the Palestinian issue was the only way to appear credible in the Muslim world, “especially to the moderates we are trying to reach out to.”

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