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E. Timor Points a Way for Mideast

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

September 29, 2002|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.

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