To the Security Council
by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East International, 1 March 1996
AS Middle East International went to press, Yemen was preparing an appeal to the UN Security Council as efforts to mediate in its dispute with Eritrea reached an impasse. The latest move came after Yemeni concessions were met with an apparent attempt by Eritrea to raise the stakes. The dispute flared up last December when Eritrean forces seized Greater Hanish island in the Red Sea, almost midway between the two states. Twelve people died and more than 200 Yemenis were captured in the fighting.
Since then, the French envoy, Francis Gutmann, has been shuttling between Sana'a and Asmara with a draft agreement aimed at resolving the conflict. Egypt and Ethiopia have also been attempting to mediate.
Gutmann's plan envisages a two-stage solution, beginning with a formal end to hostilities - probably supervised by France - and followed by a six-month arbitration period to determine questions of sovereignty and maritime borders. Both sides have now agreed to arbitration and Yemen has dropped its demand for an Eritrean withdrawal before talks can start.
The main sticking-point is Eritrean insistence on prior agreement about "the nature of the dispute". This centres on whether the quarrel is about Greater Hanish itself or about the scattered archipelago of which the island is a part. Last week [Feb 21] the Cairo newspaper al-Ahram, which often represents Egyptian government views, cautioned Eritrea against an escalation of its territorial claims. Meanwhile the Eritrean government appeared to close the door on further French mediation by saying it had "produced no result whatsoever".
The apparent deadlock has created an opportunity for Israel to enter the diplomatic fray. It has close relations with Eritrea and may hold the key to a solution. Many Yemenis suspect that Israel initially encouraged the Eritrean attack with the intention of helping to resolve it later and extracting a price from Yemen - probably through Yemeni participation in the Middle East peace process (Middle East International 516). Apart from Israeli denials, subsequent events have done nothing to allay those suspicions.
Following the "non-meeting" between President Salih and Prime Minister Peres in Paris on January 10 (Middle East International 518) there have been reports of increasing Yemeni-Israeli contacts. On February 16, Israel Defence Forces radio claimed that a foreign ministry delegation had visited Yemen "several weeks ago" and that this was not the first such visit. Last Sunday [Feb 25], Abd al-Wahhab Darawshah, a member of the Knesset, arrived in Yemen with a message for President Salih from Mr Peres - becoming the first Israeli to visit Yemen openly. On the Eritrean side, President Afewerki has made at least one unscheduled trip to Israel.
There are two likely reasons behind a Yemeni appeal to the Security Council. One may be to forestall or dilute attempts by Israel to interpose itself as a peace broker. The other may be to counter domestic pressure in Yemen for a military solution.
Many Yemenis regard the loss of Hanish as a matter of honour and expect the island to be recovered quickly. But in his 'Id al-Fitr broadcast, Salih ruled out the possibility of retaking the island by force and stressed the need for "calm, patience and wisdom".
With a navy consisting mainly of inshore patrol boats, there is no certainty that a Yemeni operation to retake Hanish would succeed. It would also conflict with Yemen's declared policy of settling all its border issues (most notably with Saudi Arabia) peacefully.
The danger for Salih would come if the Hanish dispute dragged on, with his strength as a leader called into question. Perhaps with this in mind, he recently launched a personal campaign against lax and corrupt government which, if it succeeds, could enhance his popularity.
During Ramadan he arrived, unannounced, at various government buildings and found them virtually deserted. According to the Yemen Times, he then closed the empty offices and took away the keys. Several civil servants have since been suspended and a number of military officers demoted.
The president is also said to have driven incognito from Aden to Sana'a to experience at first hand the bribes collected at wayside checkpoints.