Tokyo, 26 June 2007
This seminar meets at one of the most difficult times in the more than 60 year history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The title, “Restoring the path to peace” could not be more appropriate. Indeed, this is my exact mission as the UN’s Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process. I have held this office for a bare 6 weeks, but in that time, the world has been painfully reminded of the depth of the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, and the enormity of the challenge of ending occupation and ending conflict, based on the principle of land for peace embodied in the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council.
Only a week or so before the violent conflagration in Gaza, the world marked the 40th anniversary of the 1967 war, and the occupation that began then and continues to this day, which has seen Israeli civilians settled throughout the Palestinian territory and in the Golan Heights. These settlements represent not only the biggest obstacle to a contiguous Palestinian State; they also are a cornerstone of a system of closure and by-pass roads in the West Bank that suffocate Palestinian life.
Over the last weeks, we have witnessed the violent seizure of de facto political authority in Gaza by Hamas, the end of the Palestinian National Unity Government, and the declaration of a state of emergency by President Abbas. The Palestinian struggle has been marked by many deep crises, internal as well as external, but few are as deep or as profound in their potential impact as the deeply disturbing events of the last few weeks. These developments have led to the de facto division of the Palestinians along geographical and factional lines, and they have placed once again at centre stage the huge challenges to peace represented by continued rejection of the basic principles of the peace process. Even if it is imperfect, this peace process is the only way to achieve a free and safe future for Israelis and Palestinians alike.
The stability of Lebanon has also been greatly threatened by radical elements who are feeding off the squalor and depravation inside the Palestinian camps. In both cases, it is ordinary Palestinians that are being forced to bear the heaviest toll. In both cases, opportunists among the radicals have sought to exacerbate the situation by attacking Israel with rockets, both from Gaza and Lebanon. These rockets do not serve the Palestinian cause, instead they serve to set it back.
The plight of Palestinian civilians in Lebanon and Gaza remains a major concern. In Lebanon, fighting between the Lebanese Army and Fatah al Islam radicals has taken dozens of civilian lives and caused thousands to flee from the camps. In Gaza, hundreds were killed in inter-factional fighting and hundreds have fled to Egypt, Israel and the West Bank. Israeli operations in both Gaza and the West Bank continue also to be a cause of concern.
It would be easy to fall into despair at this state of affairs, but it would also be mistaken. We must instead look at what can be done to change current dynamics and channel energies in a more positive direction.
To this end, in Gaza, the UN is working overtime to help address the serious humanitarian concerns emanating from the closure of the Strip. Reopening the crossings into Gaza requires the cooperation of all parties, and in this effort, the humanitarian imperative must be paramount.
Beyond this, the lack of personal security is the top concern for most Palestinians. While Gaza and the West Bank remain one Palestinian territory, legally administered by one Palestinian Authority headed by President Abbas, the new realities on the ground suggest that, unless there are quick moves to re-establish a unity government, which seems unlikely, Palestinians are likely to see two different approaches for ensuring personal security develop. Prime Minister Fayad’s emergency government has declared security in the West Bank to be its most immediate concern. In Gaza, Hamas has moved forcefully to establish order. It is clear that, if and when there is a process of internal Palestinian dialogue or new elections, the Palestinian people will take note of who has been successful in addressing their over-riding concern for stability and order.
It is now vital that political and financial support from Israel and the international community is immediately delivered to President Abbas and the Palestinian government, starting with the release of all withheld Palestinian VAT and customs receipts. What is also needed is action on previous Israeli commitments including the evacuation of settlement outposts, removal of roadblocks and checkpoints and release of prisoners. Equally, the PA should act on previous commitments, not only to end violence, but to thoroughly reform its institutions. Only through this combination of steps, combined with a wisdom and maturity on the side of Palestinians to keep an eye on the ultimate need to find national unity, are we likely to see a stabilization of the precarious situation in the occupied Palestinian territory.
But this, on its own, will not be enough. What I have seen and heard since becoming Special Coordinator has only reinforced my conviction that a political process that addresses the Arab-Israeli conflict in all its dimensions is an urgent requirement not only for internal Palestinian stability but for long term regional peace. In this respect, it is pleasing that, after a hiatus, the Quartet has been reactivated and has started to engage the parties and regional actors more substantially. There is a new level of activity that seeks to exploit new ideas coming from the region. These actions come as the Arab League has recommitted itself to a comprehensive peace initiative first launched in 2002. The Arab Peace Initiative has made the Arab states a permanent and welcome addition to the search for peace. This not only provides comfort to the Palestinians, but also gives Israel a clear indication of what peace would mean as far as their future place in the region is concerned. Most importantly, it offers an alternative vision of a region plagued by prolonged violence and conflict, to a region where 40 years of occupation comes to an end and Israel lives at peace with its neighbors. In my early work, I have ensured that the UN’s contribution to promoting dialogue focuses not only on the central, and most important, Israeli-Palestinian track, but also at the regional level – and this should include, I believe, exploring the possibility of renewed negotiations between Israel and Syria.
In addition to the reawakening of the international community, we see the parties beginning to show signs of renewed interest in moving forward. President Abbas and the new Palestinian emergency government is hoping to reengage with the international community and enhance their dialogue with Israel. The Israeli leadership, having responded positively to the Arab Peace Initiative, has said that it hopes to return to its agenda as conceived following the April 2006 election: to withdraw from significant parts of the West Bank. Prime Minister Olmert has stated that Israel has no desire to rule over the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank. Under the current circumstances, the government of Israel also realizes that unilateral action is no longer an option and have committed to working with President Abbas to fulfill their objectives. This, I believe, leads ineluctably to the conclusion that only a process that focuses on end of occupation and end of conflict, and does so urgently and with a goal of reaching finality, will be credible for all involved.
Still, Israel is understandably wary that the violence in Lebanon could spill over their northern border. Rocket attacks, whether on northern or southern Israel, cause damage and take lives and create an intolerable situation for any state. The proliferation of weapons and militias beyond the control of the Palestinian Authority have caused many deaths and brought the Palestinians into unnecessary internal confrontations and with Israel as well. These destructive forces are a reality and the goal of such violence is to block the resumption of any peace process. So, too, are the efforts of those in Israeli society who continue to pursue as a strategic goal the settlement of the West Bank.
The question for all of us here is, will we continue to allow these forces to dictate the future of the peace process? Will we continue to allow attacks to derail our efforts? Will we continue to be inert in the face of those who, whether by violence or by creating facts on the ground, seek to destroy the chance of the other side to exist in peace and security in their own State? For the path of peace to be restored, the answer is clear.