washingtonpost.com  > World > Columnists > Nora Boustany

Taking Stock of Mideast Opportunities

By Nora Boustany
Wednesday, April 13, 2005; Page A14

Former Israeli security chief Ami Ayalon, visiting Washington this week, said that he was heartened by the Bush administration's recent engagement in the Middle East and that he hoped to make Americans more aware that support for a peace agreement was building among Israelis as well as Palestinians.

"Americans should not impose a solution, but this administration will finally have to make it clear what its vision for a two-state solution is," said Ayalon, who was director of the Shin Bet domestic security service from 1996 to 2000. "Just saying 'a two-state solution' is too ambiguous. The vision has to spell out the details on final status issues such as Palestinian refugees, borders and Jerusalem."

Ami Ayalon, former head of Israeli security, said the United States should make clear "its vision for a two-state solution."

Read Nora Boustany's previous Diplomatic Dispatches columns.

In an interview Monday, Ayalon said it was a coincidence that his visit coincided with that of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who met with President Bush this week at his ranch in Crawford, Tex.

The former security chief said he thought Sharon would seek U.S. support to postpone for as long as possible any discussion of what should come next in Israeli-Palestinian relations. He predicted that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, expected to meet with Bush next month, would "try to achieve the opposite."

Ayalon said Sharon's decision to unilaterally withdraw more than 8,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip, along with the soldiers who protect them, was important. But he added: "To pull out of Gaza is not a policy, it is a step. Whether it is a step in the right direction toward a two-state solution or at least a step toward hope, we don't know."

He said a small "window of opportunity" had opened with the death in November of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the Gaza disengagement plan and the beginning of Bush's second term. But he added that more than 70 percent of Palestinians consider the uprising successful so far, while most Israelis "believe our way of fighting terror won."

Ayalon said his experience taught him that "violence is a result of a lack of hope and despair, and it evolves into an ideology." Responding with force, he added, "will never be enough."

If both sides feel they are at a dead end, he said, "everyone will slip back into violence."

British Labor Dispute Intensifies

The British Embassy said it was "surprised and disappointed" that the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers is filing a complaint with the International Labor Organization over negotiations for locally hired staff, most of whom are British citizens.

The union alleges that the embassy has broken a promise to recognize it as a bargaining partner. Andy Banks, a union official, said now the embassy is stalling .

"Instead of recognizing our union, they have been talking about a company-controlled 'yellow' union among the staff. This is a violation of our structures and ILO standards. . . . Now we have taken our gloves off," Banks said in an interview last week.

But Peter Hayes, the embassy's head of administration, said union officials had not given him the chance to respond to their proposals. He said embassy officials have offered to meet with union officials twice since March 31 but have received no response.

Hayes said the union's charges were "rubbish." He acknowledged that staff members have long complained that "we have committees to discuss IT, health, safety and the social club and we don't have a committee to study how the staff interacts with management. There has been criticism about the lack of communication."

Banks said the union's e-mails to the British Embassy have been blocked so staff members cannot see them. "We hired a legal expert and he is drafting a complaint to file at the ILO. Our right to organize and bargain collectively is granted by law" in the United States, he said.

"People have had to whisper in halls and they have moved their meeting places. It is like we were in Burma, or worse, like in Guantanamo," he added. More than 600 locally hired embassy and consulate staffers have a type of visa that strips them of all diplomatic privilege, and now their employers have decided they can be fired without notice, Banks said.

Hayes argued that while the union wants exclusive rights to bargain on behalf of the staff, all staff members must have a voice. He described accusations that the embassy has not allowed staff members to assemble as ridiculous, and he said their decision to have their next meeting at the New Zealand Embassy was only because their facilities at the British Embassy are being refurbished.

"We never said they can't. They have been doing it endlessly," he said. He said the embassy has experienced "growing pains as we drag ourselves into the 21st century. It is uncomfortable, but we will get there. We need to keep calm."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company