Papandreou, Cem On Joint Middle East Mission

Visit aims to supplement peace efforts, boost Greek-Turkish rapprochement

THE TWO olive saplings nestled in seats 22D and 22E of Foreign Minister George Papandreou's flight to Tel Aviv on April 24 were intended as symbols of peace.

Peace was the message on the lips of Papandreou and his Turkish counterpart Ismail Cem in a joint visit to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The broad smile on Arafat's face underlined his continued determination to oppose Israeli pressure to abandon the West Bank for Gaza. But his public persona masked the dire condition of a man who was living on a daily cup of rice soup. According to one of the 20 peace activists locked inside his compound, the Palestinians had exhausted water and food supplies the previous day.

The Papandreou-Cem visit was used as a rare press opportunity by the besieged Palestinian leader, who publicly sentenced four men charged with murdering Israeli tourism minister Rehavan Zeevi in October. The accused received sentences of 18, 12, 8 and one year in prison.

Greek and Turkish cameramen at the compound filmed the verdict by a military court. Journalists were barred from accompanying Papandreou and Cem.

Asked if the Greek-Turkish mission could serve as an example to the conflict in Israel, Arafat said:

"Do not forget the peace of the brave which I signed with my partner Rabin. Now it has been demolished, as you see none of my ministers have the ability to come and attend this conference."

The Palestinian leader clearly conveyed his powerlessness when asked what's the next step. "You have the Israelis, and the Americans who are behind them," he said.

Arafat predicted a widening regional conflict, saying that "without a peace agreement in the Holy Land, there will be no peace in the Middle East".

Papandreou's visit was preceded by a meeting the previous day between Arafat and European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who expressed "shock" at the conditions in Arafat's compound. "The situation in the building where Arafat works and he and the others live, is rather shocking for someone who has political responsibility of an elected president," Solana said after meeting Papandreou and Cem in the early morning hours on April 25.

The two ministers' meeting with Arafat focused on the possibility of defusing the two flashpoints, the continued Israeli sieges of the Ramallah compound and of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Papandreou made clear that the trip was intended to supplement US, EU and Arab efforts to restart peace talks. Foreign ministry sources also hoped the trip might encourage Greek-Turkish rapprochement during a period of renewed tensions over Cyprus' EU accession process and perhaps aid prospects for a breakthrough in talks on uniting the divided island.

"For the Middle East, the Greek-Turkish paradigm - with all its setbacks - has a certain symbolism for people struggling to put a dialogue back on track," Papandreou told journalists. "The visit might also give the Israeli peace movement a slightly firmer foothold, as it seeks to advance dialogue with the Palestinians. We want to see a secure Israel. We condemn the killing of innocent victims and understand the pain of their loved ones. A secure Israel also means a secure and viable Palestinian state - with prospects for peace, development and democracy."

While Papandreou was quick to support UN Security Council resolutions for immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces from the occupied territories and called for a halt to suicide bombings, Cem suggested that international monitors could "be vigilant about terror and preparations for terror".

Cem said that the Bethlehem standoff could end in "tragedy". He suggested that he and Papandreou had a positive effect and that Israelis and Palestinians might be softening their positions on handling the 200-odd people who sought sanctuary in the church, some of whom are wanted by Israel.

"I think we have had an input in the church... Both parties must make some steps forward and we were able to achieve that slightly with them. I don't know whether this will be enough to get a peaceful solution," Cem said, without outlining any proposals.

Greek Orthodox Patriarch Eirinaios, whose church controls the basilica, made an impassioned plea to both Arafat and Sharon in an April 21 letter made available to the Athens News. The letter was co-signed by Franciscan Custodian Giovanni Battistelli and Armenian Orthodox Patriarch Torkon Manoogian, whose churches have rights at the holy site as well.

The church leaders demanded that the Palestinians be "peacefully evacuated from the church and adjacent compounds", that two dead men be buried outside and asked for "humanitarian assistance in order to avoid a catastrophe".

"All this is a desecration of the sanctity of one of the holiest places in Christianity. We are extremely concerned by the unforeseen consequences of this standoff, which endangers the lives of our monks at this time," the letter said.