Annan’s Extraordinary Middle Eastern Diplomacy

With the world focused on First Avenue this week, Secretary General Kofi Annan’s recent diplomatic success in the Middle East deserves attention. Diplomacy abhors a vacuum. And in the days following the calamitous month-long war in Israel and Lebanon, the ceasefire between the Israeli Defense Forces and Hezbollah militants looked quite tenuous. Neither side had much confidence that the other would comply with the ceasefire requirements set out in Security Council Resolution 1701, which ostensibly ended the conflict on August 11th. Adding to this uncertainty were key issues that remained unresolved: the composition of the peacekeeping force, the sea and air blockades, and the status of the two Israeli prisoners captured by Hezbollah were all kicked down road for further discussion. Fragile situations like this require an honest broker to assure both sides that the other will respect its ceasefire obligations. With the historical powerbrokers of the region unwilling or unable to take on this role, Kofi Annan and the United Nations stepped in. Now, the pieces of a lasting cease-fire and eventual peace accord are beginning to fall into place.

In 11 days – from August 28 until last week – Kofi Annan traveled to Belgium, Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Jordan, Syria, Qatar, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and Spain for the principal purpose of shoring up support for Resolution 1701. The resolution authorized a large peacekeeping force to augment the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). But as always with peacekeeping missions, the great hurdle is securing enough troops from the right countries. After a brief initial delay, France and Italy stepped up to contribute a significant number of troops, satisfying one of Israel’s early requests that the peacekeepers come from countries with sophisticated military capacities. Still, in the interest of balance, local sensitivities, and to avoid the appearance that UNIFIL would be an occupying force, the Western peacekeepers would have to be complimented by soldiers from Muslim countries as well.

Though many Muslim countries, such as Bangladesh, have historically contributed large numbers of their soldiers to peacekeeping operations around the world, Israel, quite reasonably, requested that only soldiers from countries with which it has diplomatic ties contribute to UNIFIL. This left precious few Muslim countries from which to draw troops. Among this small club, Turkey is the prize. During his stop in Ankara, Annan was able to convince Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to contribute to the force, despite objections from some members of parliament. And following Annan’s trip to Jerusalem, the Israeli government softened its position and consented to Indonesian contributions to UNIFIL. In less than a month following the cease-fire, UNIFIL is shaping up to be a Muslim-European peacekeeping force, which was the United Nations’ aim from the outset.

Parallel to securing the right troops for Lebanon, Annan shuttled from country to country in order to help create the conditions whereby Israel could lift its sea and air blockade of Lebanon. This was an uphill battle from the get-go, for Israel had insisted that it would lift the blockades only when all of the conditions set forth on resolution 1701 were met. But some of these conditions, such as a border patrol and weapons interdiction regime, were weeks away from being implemented. (When Annan visited Beirut, the German ships scheduled to replace the Israeli Navy off the coast of Lebanon were at least two weeks away from their destination.) Meanwhile, the ongoing blockade was enacting a heavy political toll on Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora as well as impeding reconstruction efforts throughout the country. A frustrated Siniora, reported the Financial Times was reaching the limits of his patience and refused to take Annan’s calls.

A day before he was scheduled to head back to New York, Annan made one final push to lift the blockade. Working the phones, he secured an agreement from France to patrol the Lebanese coast until the German navy arrived. Then, asked Germany to send border control agents to Lebanese airports, per Israel’s demands. Finally, the conditions were right lifting the blockades. With a call to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Annan was able to convince Israeli Prime Minister Olmert to stand down his forces.

To be sure, there are still issues left to be resolved. Chief among them is securing the release of the two Israeli soldiers kidnapped at the outset of the conflict. To that end, the Secretary General has appointed a secret negotiating team to mediate between the two sides. Without the use of the Secretary General’s good offices, it’s unclear how – if at all – the two sides could negotiate for the soldiers’ release.

It is becoming apparent that Kofi Annan is probably the only person, and the United Nations the only platform, with enough credibility left in the Middle East to do the back room and shuttle diplomacy that was required to bring about a settlement to this summer’s month-long war. If this success holds, Kofi Annan may well have permanently established the United Nations as the leading broker of the broader Arab-Israeli conflict.

Early returns show that this could bode well for prospects of peace in the region.