- The Washington Times - Monday, November 17, 2008

GENEVA

Martti Ahtisaari, Finland’s former president and winner of the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize, said it’s “high time” for world leaders to solve frozen conflicts such as the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians.

“I think our real challenges are issues like the Middle East. Because if we can’t solve it - and I see no reason why we can’t - it has an effect on issues like Afghanistan, Iraq [and] Iran,” he said.

Mr. Ahtisaari, 71, who as an international envoy successfully brokered peace accords for Kosovo; Aceh between Indonesia and the rebels; and Namibia’s independence, said:

“It’s high time that an issue that is actually causing more harm, for those who should be looking for solution in [the] Middle East, and one could be referring to the United States and Europe.”

Mr. Ahtisaari is still active today on the global stage as chairman of Interpeace, an advocacy group with programs in conflict zones around the world, and as co-chairman of Europe’s Council for Foreign Relations.

“I have been urging that we should solve the frozen conflicts. It’s very sad to realize actually that the international community has tolerated frozen conflicts,” he said in an interview Thursday.

Mr. Ahtisaari has won plaudits from diplomats and international affairs specialists for his work.

“Martti is very visionary in his understanding that every conflict has a solution,” said Scott Weber, director-general of Interpeace and a former U.N. diplomat.

Asked about the lack of traction on Middle East peace despite the involvement of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as the top envoy of the Quartet - the U.S., United Nations, Russia and European Union - on the Middle East, Mr. Ahtisaari said: “It’s a pity the present U.S. administration started fairly late in looking at the Middle East. But there was clearly an effort, already from their side.”

“I hope these efforts will now get the first priority from the new administration,” he said.

The Bush administration initially acted on the belief that President Clinton’s failed effort to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal in the final days of his administration, had made the conflict worse. As a result, President Bush’s first term was characterized by a relatively hands-off approach to the conflict.

In the second term, however, the administration was actively engaged in peacemaking efforts and set a goal of achieving the outlines of a two-state solution to the conflict.

Mr. Ahtisaari also urged the United States to begin dealing with Hamas, a militant Islamic group that won a majority in the Palestinian parliament in 2006 elections.

Israel and the United States consider Hamas a terrorist group that seeks to destroy Israel and have refused to have contact with the organization.

“My basic view has always been if you organize elections, and the international community says that these have been free, and fair, then I think we should also be prepared to discuss with those that happen to win, for various reasons,” Mr. Ahtisaari said.

An end to the bitter feuds among the various Palestinian factions is also a must for the peace process to advance, Mr. Ahtisaari said.

“I think the important thing is that, hopefully, the different elements among the Palestinians also can see eye to eye, because they must realize, also, that their cooperation is vital.”

Since the 2006 elections, an armed uprising by Hamas in the Gaza Strip has driven out officials from Mahmoud Abbas’ rival Palestinian Authority.

The two factions are struggling for control of the West Bank.

Mr. Ahtisaari described President-elect Barack Obama’s victory, as “a sea change in the United States. First of all, it shows the U.S. is capable of change.”

But he also said he did not envy the incoming president, because “expectations are extremely high.”

“I wish he could have come in a slightly different economic situation because the fiscal crises are still there.”

On relations between Europe and the U.S., Mr. Ahtisaari said he’s “looking at a more balanced trans-Atlantic relationship.”

“There are positive elements, and I think if we can see eye to eye in our trans-Atlantic relationship it will bode well. We can get to discuss the issues that are important and need to be solved and then move in unison.”

At the onset of the Iraq war in 2003, relations between the U.S. and Europe sank to an a low point, especially with France and Germany, which opposed the U.S.-led invasion.

“We may see a lot of activity coming from the new, young administration when Obama starts, and I am very much looking forward to how that affects the trans-Atlantic cooperation and [international] cooperation in general,” Mr. Ahtisaari said.

On cooperation over the financial crisis, he said efforts thus far are encouraging.

“At least we are cooperating better as an international community. It has been rather impressive, and there I would give my support to Prime Minister Gordon Brown, for he has been very instrumental in this process, and many others,” Mr. Ahtisaari said.

He spoke before the weekend financial summit in Washington at which leaders from the world’s leading economies vowed to increase coordination.

Mr. Ahtisaari, whose country shares a long border with Russia, also played down the prospects of a new Cold War between the Kremlin and the West.

“No one in their right mind is even talking about a new Cold War. No one in the West wants it, and I can’t believe that Russians would want it either.

“We are actually living in a world where we have perhaps less external threats than internal problems. And I want to say this, so people can start to think, that we need to solve our internal problems in our societies, so that they don’t spill over and cause conflicts.”

He said world leaders need to focus more on environmental issues, “which definitely need continuous attention,” and also to get proper negotiations going, again, on conventional and nuclear disarmament issues.

“I think, we have to be much more demanding of our political leaders in the world, and not let them get away with non-solutions,” he said.

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