15 JANUARY 2009


As Secretary General Ban Ki-moon embarks on his most crucial mission, he deserves all the support he can get. His decision to proceed to the Middle East at this time is not only vital for international peace, but also for regaining the role of the U.N. in a region where its reputation -- and, bluntly, his own -- have been seriously eroded and is on the line. It took leadership, courage and farsightedness to recognize what was at stake and to determine that only the U.N. Secretary General could play the unique role in such a complex issue. Officially stated, his main purpose is to personally broker a ceasefire in the Gaza conflict through a wide range of high level talks. His itinerary to stop first in Cairo is well advised. Despite inevitable arguments, the Egyptian initiative is the main one under practical discussion. Almost all parties concerned or involved are working with and through Cairo. The Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has sent a special envoy, as the question of observers on the crossings is been argued. A member of the Security Council, Turkey's government has excellent relations with all sides, including Hamas. Saudi Arabia has entrusted Egypt with handling the mechanics of a ceasefire; a recent visit by President Mobarak to Saudi Arabia explored the various options. Even Hamas has a delegation negotiating with Intelligence Chief General Omar Suleiman; it accepted "parts" of his proposals while traveling between Cairo, Damascus and Gaza. Even the U.S. has discreetly dispatched Assistant Secretary Jeffrey Feltman, former Ambassador to Lebanon who had also attended the Security Council meetings in New York.

Egypt, which administered Gaza from 1948 to 1967 is geographically, politically and culturally the closest Arab country to that strip. However, in these complex partisan times, Egypt alone cannot deliver. If any country knows Gaza best, it is Egypt -- whatever the government or authorities; the rest is politics. That may explain why, in addition to outmaneuvering other regional powers, it was an alert Foreign Minister of Egypt, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, who dynamically brokered Security Council Resolution 1860 -- repeatedly stressing in his statement the special concern of President Mobarak. That may also explain why he moved quickly on timing to the point of challenging two friendly Permanent Members of the Council. Dr. Rice, who collaborated on the resolution, sought more time to deal with opposing pressure on Washington on a veto. President Sarkozy wanted a day's delay, ostensibly to attempt a deal in the region, or enough time to fly to New York and preside personally over the Council's meeting. Anyway, Mr. Aboul Gheit -- after gaining the support of U.K. Foreign Minister David Milliban -- insisted on going ahead that Thursday evening. He needed a vote, certainly to try and avoid further bloodshed, but also before Friday prayers anticipated popular demonstrations.

Unfortunately, on the Palestinian side, those who negotiated the resolution in New York have no influence with the forces on the ground. While Mr. Ban's visit to Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority, is a point of principle, the actual political leadership is with Khaled Meshal in Damascus. Hence the astute decision to also visit Syria. Let's hope our Secretary General plays his cards right and avoids raising a red flag in the person of the irritating Terje Roed Larsen, a persona non grata there, as well as in Ramallah and Gaza. In Beirut, Mr. Ban can expect a very warm welcome and an invitation to attend a full session of Parliament on Saturday 17 January. His visit to UNIFIL will be a welcome morale booster, particularly after aborted attempts by illicit parties to fire rockets across the border to instigate conflict. A side trip to Turkey would nail down a number of political points and ceasefire logistics. His attendance of a high level economic meeting in Kuwait, with the participation of some Arab heads of state will be an opportunity to gain practical support for humanitarian assistance and reconstruction, once a ceasefire is in place. Obviously, a ceasefire requires thorough talks in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, which he will be visiting.

Clearly, there are many questions. In the past, Mr. Ban had previously authorized "envoys" to operate on his behalf. Now it is his mission. What will he bring to the table? Who will be advising him? Whoever advises him, decisions will be perceived publicly and politically as his own. What compromise proposals will he be bringing forward? What "face saving" devices to all sides? Will he meet Hamas leaders as an exchange for agreeing to a ceasefire? If so, where: in Damascus or Cairo? Or perhaps Istanbul? Will he also attend a proposed Arab Summit if held in Qatar, as suggested by its Emir? Would he then, formally or informally, directly or indirectly, meet Mr. Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and Mr. Meshal of Hamas; both have personal residences in Doha.

Many, many pending questions arise.

For the moment, however, we would like to express to our Secretary General Ban Ki-moon our most sincere wishes for a decisive success. His bold mission for peace deserves everyone's full support.