Announcing that today’s briefing to the Security Council would be his last in his capacity as Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and Personal Representative of the Secretary-General to the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority, Terje Roed-Larsen delivered a message to the opponents of Middle East peace: “It is time to wrest control from them and to take charge. The need to act could not be any clearer.”
In the regular monthly briefing to the Council on the Middle East situation, Mr. Roed-Larsen said that, with the passing of Yasser Arafat last week, a political titan had passed away, a giant — for friend and foe alike — had left the world political scene. His passing had marked the end of an era. Now that Mr. Arafat was gone, both Israelis and Palestinians, and the friends of both peoples throughout the world, must make even greater efforts to bring about the peaceful realization of the Palestinian right of self-determination.
Yet, as Council members knew better than any, the Arab-Israeli conflict had been one of the greatest enduring diplomatic challenges that the world had faced since the middle of the twentieth century, he said. At the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a dispute of competing and contradictory historical narratives, collective aspirations and identities. For most of its existence, Israel had remained locked in a state of war with one or more of its neighbours, and, since the creation of the refugee problem, the Palestinian people had been in limbo, struggling to find their path to a dignified existence, self-determination and independence.
He urged the United Nations, together with its partners in the Quartet and in the region, to continue its work to achieve the full implementation of the Road Map. The shared goal must continue to be the realization of a Middle East peace, based on Security Council resolutions 242 (1967), 338 (1973) and 1397 (2002), the end of occupation that started in 1967, and the establishment of a sovereign, democratic, viable and contiguous Palestinian State living side by side in peace with a secure Israel. Though Yasser Arafat did not live to see the attainment of those goals, the world must continue to strive towards them.
While he said he had not wished to pretend that the prevailing reality in the Middle East was not grim, he wanted to emphasize today that hope and opportunity remained. The Council was the primary reference point for Middle East peace. Its decisions set the basic parameters for peace and the process towards achieving it in the region. Its continued engagement would have to guide any revitalization of the peace process. “Indeed, there is no future for peace in the Middle East without this Council. There cannot be”, he said in closing.
The meeting began at 3:40 p.m. and was adjourned at 4:30 p.m.
Briefing by Middle East Special Coordinator
TERJE ROED-LARSEN, Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and Personal Representative of the Secretary-General to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority, said that, with the passing of Yasser Arafat four days ago, a political titan had passed away. A giant had left the world political scene; a giant for those who supported him, as well as for those who opposed him, for friend and foe alike. His passing marked the end of an era.
For nearly four decades, Mr. Arafat was the leader of the Palestinian people, expressing and embodying their aspirations like no other, he said. That famous face with the trademark kaffiyeh had epitomized Palestinian identity and nationalist aspirations, even more than the Palestinian flag or the national anthem. For many, Abu Ammar, the “Old Man”, became one with the word Palestine. Personality and territory merged into one, indistinguishable, a synthesis. As a leader, he built the institutions that were now making an orderly transition possible — al-Fatah, the PLO, and the Palestinian Authority with its President, Prime Minister, cabinet and, most of all, the democratically elected Legislative Council.
He said that now that Mr. Arafat was gone, both Israelis and Palestinians, and the friends of both peoples throughout the world, must make even greater efforts to bring about the peaceful realization of the Palestinian right of self-determination. The United Nations, together with its partners in the Quartet and in the region, must continue its work to achieve the full implementation of the Road Map. The shared goal must continue to be the realization of a Middle East peace, based on Security Council resolutions 242 (1967), 338 (1973) and 1397 (2002), the end of occupation that started in 1967, and the establishment of a sovereign, democratic, viable and contiguous Palestinian State living side-by-side in peace with a secure Israel. Though Yasser Arafat did not live to see the attainment of those goals, the world must continue to strive towards them.
“These are undoubtedly momentous days in the Middle East”, he said. The Palestinian leadership had reacted commendably and had taken the first firm steps towards instituting a smooth transition of power in accordance with the Basic Law. Those had, by and large, successfully prevented internal unrest in areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority. He was further encouraged by the great degree of coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority related to the arrangements for Mr. Arafat’s burial. He was particularly pleased to note the fact that Israel had allowed Palestinian security forces to bear arms and had released NIS 145 million in attached arrears. The extent and success of coordination in recent days was reminiscent of earlier, happier days, and might herald a new beginning — a new beginning that would come not because of Mr. Arafat’s passing, but in spite of the very difficult situation.
As a first step, he urged the Palestinians to organize and conduct free and fair elections for the presidency within 60 days, in accordance with the Basic Law. The Palestinians should also undertake visible, sustained, targeted and effective action on the ground to halt violence and terrorist activity. Israel, during that critical time, needed to refrain from all actions undermining trust, including settlement activity; facilitate the preparations and conduct of elections; and take steps to significantly improve the humanitarian situation, by lifting curfews and easing restrictions on the movement of persons and goods. All of those steps had to be taken in parallel. Only then could they mutually reinforce onward motion.
He said that the Middle East had reached a critical juncture even before the passing of President Arafat. Less than three weeks ago, the Israeli Knesset approved Prime Minister Sharon’s initiative to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and parts of the northern West Bank. That historic decision paved the way for the evacuation of Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory for the first time since the occupation began in 1967. Amid the remarkable events taking place in the region, he looked at the peace process from a different perspective today. In recent briefings, he had concentrated on the events and developments on the ground, usually painting a gloomy picture of violence, deterioration and crisis. Those pictures reflected the sad reality characterizing the Middle East. However, the potential of the present situation contained a perspective to change that reality.
Therefore, he wished to highlight the “bigger picture” today - — one that underlined how far the parties had moved in the past decade and what opportunities remained for them to settle their conflict. For the past century, the Middle East had been one of the most persistent theatres of conflict in the world. As Council members knew better than any, the Arab-Israeli conflict was one of the greatest enduring diplomatic challenges that the world had faced since the middle of the twentieth century. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, lying at its heart, was a dispute of “competing and contradictory” historical narratives, collective aspirations and identities. For most of its existence, Israel had remained locked in a state of war with one or more of its neighbours. And, since the creation of the refugee problem, the Palestinian people had been left in limbo, struggling to find their path to a dignified existence, self-determination and independence.
For both Israelis and Palestinians, their conflict was a deeply existential struggle, he said. Israelis felt the conflict as a constant battle for their very survival, a struggle that needed to be seen against the background of the experience of near-extermination during the lifetime of current Israeli leaders. Palestinians felt the struggle as a battle of resistance each and every day for their identify and against the erosion of the possibility of a future as a people. Both sides pursued similar aspirations: self-determination; peace; security; and prosperity. And, both sides had, in a sense, similar leaders — leaders of war and peace. One of those had been Yitzhak Rabin, whose death nine years ago everyone mourned this month and who paid with his life for taking bold and brave steps towards peace. Another was Yasser Arafat, who led the Palestinians in war and in peace and who did not live to see peace and self-determination realized.
He said that the aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians had long been thwarted by violence and crisis. Since September 2000, “the peace process has been in reverse”. Approximately, 3,895 Palestinians and 983 Israelis had been killed. More than 36,620 Palestinians and 6,360 Israelis had been injured. Many of the earlier achievements had been eroded. The violence of the past four weeks underlined a pattern that had emerged ever more clearly since September 2000 and, especially, over the past year. Palestinian extremists and militants organized and carried out suicide bombings and other acts of terror against Israeli civilians, as they did once again on 1 November, killing three people in Tel Aviv and wounding many more in an abominable act of terror.
Palestinian militants also fired Qassam rockets and mortar shells against cities inside Israel, as well as against Israeli targets in the occupied Palestinian territory. Sadly, children were among the victims — as was the case in late June when a four-year-old died in a Qassam rocket attack against Sderot, or in late September, when a two-year-old and a four-year-old were killed by yet another Qassam rocket fired on the city. It was the Palestinian Authority’s obligation, under the Road Map and under international law, to prevent all such attacks, to do its utmost to end the violence and to bring to justice those implicated in terrorist attacks. Nothing could justify terror.
He said that Israel had maintained the illegal practice of targeted assassinations, including in densely populated areas where there was a high risk of so-called collateral damage. In yet another such extrajudicial killing, Israel assassinated a senior Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip and his deputy on 21 October. Israel must halt its resort to such targeted assassinations. Its military operations and incursions in the occupied Palestinian territory had also raised the spectre of a disproportionate use of force and collective punishment through the destruction of civilian property and infrastructure.
Disturbingly, there was often a high death toll of civilians, especially children, he continued. On 24 and 25 October, Israel conducted a military operation in Khan Younis that left 16 Palestinians dead, among them an 11-year-old boy. On 28 October, a nine-year-old girl was hit by gunfire on her way to school in Khan Younis. On 30 October, a 12-year-old boy was shot dead in a refugee camp in the West Bank town of Jenin, where Israeli troops had operated for several days from 27 October onwards. Israel was obligated under international law and as the occupying Power to protect Palestinian civilians, especially children, and to safeguard civilian property. Israel had the right to self-defence, but that must be exercised in strict adherence to international law.
He said that the violence and terror, and the lack of mutual confidence, had reinforced the belief on both sides that they were struggling for their very survival and existence. In many ways, the opponents of peace had been defeating all of those who desired and believed in peace. “It is time to wrest control from them and to take charge”, he said. The need to act could not be any clearer.
The Palestinian economy remained on the verge of collapse, he went on. Palestinian living conditions had declined dramatically. By the end of 2001, Palestinians were worse off than they had been at any time since 1967. The situation, which the World Bank earlier this year called one of the worst recessions in modern history, was threatening to take on disastrous proportions. The widespread poverty was rising; unemployment continued to increase; and revenues of the Palestinian Authority continued to be far below expenditure levels. The Authority was the primary employer of the Palestinian labour force, with a large proportion of the wider population crucially depending on wages paid by it. Continuing and expanding donor assistance would be essential to keep the Authority afloat. Support was required urgently, especially at the present difficult time.
Despite the difficult situation in the Palestinian areas, and despite the violence, terror, and economic, humanitarian and political crisis, he said it was possible to “alter the reality” prevailing in the Middle East. A full settlement of the conflict would contribute significantly to enhancing peace and stability in the rest of the region and the world at large. Despite the many, many difficulties, the parties were much closer to reaching that goal than the current perception would lead everyone to believe. Among both Israelis and Palestinians, support for reconciliation, peace and coexistence had remained persistently high over the past decade. Indeed, what could be called a cultural revolution had taken place in both the Israeli and Palestinian street in the past 10 years.
Today, he said, the Israeli Prime Minister had embraced the vision of ending the occupation that began in 1967, and was the first-ever Israeli leader to initiate a large-scale uprooting of settlements in Gaza and parts of the West Bank. The political significance of breaking down those long-standing taboos in Israel should not be underestimated. According to public opinion polls, in 1993, only a third of the Israeli public favoured the establishment of a PalestinianState. Support among Israelis for a PalestinianState grew steadily during the years of the Oslo process, reaching 50 per cent in 1997 and 56 per cent in 1999. Even the eruption of the second intifada in September 2000 had not reversed that trend. Though public support for a PalestinianState fell to 49 per cent in 2002, the presentation of the Quartet’s Road Map in 2003 had led an unprecedented 59 per cent of Israelis to favour the establishment of a PalestinianState.
Similarly, he continued, a large percentage of Israelis had remained unwaveringly supportive of negotiations as a means to settle the conflict, regardless of the continuing violence. In September 2004, well more than two thirds of Israelis supported peace negotiations, and only 27.1 per cent were opposed to them. Those changes in public perception in Israel were “nothing less than a cultural revolution, a fundamental, radical and massive change of public attitudes”.
On the Palestinian side, similar radical changes had occurred, he noted. In September 1993, after nearly six years of the first intifada, Palestinians had high expectations, reflected in the support of 65 per cent of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip for the Oslo process. An equal percentage of Palestinians had anticipated the peace process to improve economic conditions in the occupied territory. Despite uncertainty and disappointment of the initial expectations during 1994, the parallel support for the peace process never fell below 60 per cent between 1996 and 1999. By September 1999, support for the peace process stood at 75 per cent and had had majority support even over the last four years. Those findings confirmed that, although it might be difficult to see that in the current conditions - — much progress had been made since 1993.
Some 12 years ago in Oslo, an experiment was begun to bring the two peoples together so that they could find ways to build a common future, he recalled. Much of that common future had been outlined and defined, even though things now seemed far removed from completing the picture. Israelis, Palestinians and the international community had worked closely together for most of the years of the peace process. Everyone had collaborated closely in the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994 and, together, saw the growth of significant Palestinian institutions — not only those of the Palestinian Authority, but also those of Palestinian civic society and those of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation. While some of the Palestinian institutions were flawed by mismanagement and lack of transparency, some had been able to deliver essential services to Palestinians, and some had begun to carve out an independent political space for development.
One of the strongest and most persistent criticisms of the Oslo process had been that it had not defined the end goal; that it had not defined where everyone would be at the end of the process, he said. It was often argued, with some justification, that that had left the process vulnerable to interruptions, to misinterpretation, to failures of vision along the road. True, every suicide bombing that hit an Israeli city in 1994, in 1995, and in the years after that; the closure regime restricting Palestinian movement in the West Bank and Gaza and curtailing Palestinian employment in Israel; and the continuous and unimpeded growth of Israeli settlements - — all contributed to derailing the vulnerable process further and further. And so the momentum was gradually lost.
He said, however, that the criticism of the Oslo process for its gradualist approach and for deferring decisions on the most difficult issues until later was “desktop philosophizing”; there was no other way back then but to proceed cautiously, gradually. Nowadays, everyone tended to overlook the progress that had actually been made. Today, the international community had, through the Road Map, which built on the earlier agreements, a clear and shared vision of how to end the occupation that began in 1967. There was a clear vision to settle the conflict through the realization of the two-State vision and the coexistence of Israel and an independent, sovereign, democratic, viable and contiguous Palestine in peace and security. In 1993, that vision was “blurry at best”. At the time, it had been impossible to define end goals that would have come close to satisfying the concerns of both peoples. “Had we sought to start at the end, we would not have started at all”, he said.
At the time, gradualism, the step-by-step approach, had been a choice of necessity, he said. And, the tactic of gradualism had been successful, up to 1999. It was perhaps the greatest achievement of the Oslo process that it changed fundamentals, perceptions, attitudes and ideologies — on both sides. Over the years, support for the peace process had grown steadily on both sides as both people saw an alternative to confrontation; saw the possibility of a shared future. The now more than 10-year-old peace process initiated the fundamental change of attitudes, which, again, had made possible not only a definition of the end goal, but also a rallying of majority of popular support for it on both sides.
In 2000, some 70 per cent of Israelis had expressed their support for the Oslo process whilst nearly 60 per cent of Palestinians had continued supporting the Oslo formula, he said. As socio-economic conditions in the West Bank and Gaza, together with the levels of optimism, had radically improved, levels of violence had showed a steady decline. Continuous improvement of economic and social conditions in both Israel and the West Bank and Gaza had both accompanied and provided the foundations for that progress and optimism. The Israeli economy had boomed, with new peaks in foreign direct investment year after year, with a fundamental shift from isolation to an economy deeply integrated into world markets, a shift that had been only made possible by the peace process, some argued.
The Palestinian economy, initially suffering from the creation of new boundaries between areas under self-government and those still under Israeli occupation, had likewise witnessed unprecedented growth. By 1996, sustained growth had characterized the Palestinian economy. Poverty had declined from about 50 to 21 per cent by September 2000. Unemployment had fallen from about 30 per cent in 1997 to 13.3 per cent in 1999. Growth in real incomes had averaged around 9 per cent from 1997 to 1999. The Palestinian Authority’s fiscal vitality had improved significantly to achieve a small surplus in 1999, no longer necessitating external budgetary support.
But by that time, trust between Israelis and Palestinians had been faltering, and, with it, the socio-economic and political progress had come to a halt, he said. As trust had begun to falter, dialogue had begun to stall. The development of Palestinian institutions to support the trust, the dialogue and the economic progress had begun to reverse. After September 2000, it had been use of force and terror that had truly shattered the remaining confidence of those Israelis and Palestinians who believed in the will of the other to make real progress towards a common future.
Israel’s resort to force, extrajudicial killings, military operations, the temporary reoccupation of areas under Palestinian self-rule, house demolitions, closures, movement restrictions, the continued establishment of outposts and expansion of settlements, construction of Israel’s barrier, and the confinement of the Palestinian President to his compound for more than two years — all those elements had contributed to convincing Palestinians that Israelis had not truly believed in peace. The resort to violence and terror; failure to reign in the terror, incitement and the continued commitment of some to eradicate the State of Israel and liberate all of historic Palestine; and failure to institute reform and adopt appropriate standards of governance, transparency and accountability were all factors that had led Israelis to believe that Palestinians had not been ready for peace.
If the past four years had taught anything, it was that terror did not bring a leader and a people closer to the attainment of their goals, he said. A military solution to the conflict did not exist. Sooner or later, a new beginning would have to be made, which left behind violence and terror and embraced peaceful means. The demise of the Oslo process was not irrevocable. The principles underlying it remained valid. Three fundamental alternatives of how to conceptualize peace in the Middle East included the one-State solution, the multiple-State solution and the two-State solution. A one-State solution might accommodate many fundamental Palestinian desires, but failed to meet the essential requirement of Israelis to maintain their self-determination and sovereignty. A multiple-State solution, on the other hand, might meet many of Israel’s basic ambitions, but failed to satisfy the core aspiration of the Palestinian people, namely, self-determination and sovereignty.
Only the two-State solution could offer a viable way out of the conflict, he said. The international community had long agreed that only a settlement of the conflict that offered both Israelis and Palestinians the satisfaction of their fundamental desire for self-determination, independence and security within internationally recognized borders could achieve enduring peace in the Middle East. Such lasting peace would only be possible if, ultimately, the occupation that began in 1967 ended and led to the coexistence of two States, Israel and Palestine, side by side in peace and security. That goal could only be reached over the negotiating table in full cooperation with the international community and the Quartet, and not through terror, violence or subjugation.
The basic principles underlying the Oslo process remained valid and alive today, he continued. They included the fundamental principle of land for peace, based on Council resolutions 242 and 338; the end of occupation; rejection of violence and terrorism; the need for security for both parties; a fair solution to the plight of refugees; and Israel’s legitimate right to self-defence and to exist in security. Israel must be provided with full recognition and with permanent guarantees of its security, in the form of freedom from attack and from the threat of attack. The Palestinians must be provided with real and permanent independence, in the form of a viable and secure PalestinianState, established on lands occupied by Israel during the 1967 war, with economic control over its own borders. As part of the process, it was necessary to remove Israeli settlements, reform Palestinian institutions and restore the Palestinian economy and infrastructure.
While the principles remained unchanged, the mechanisms for realizing them in practice were now very different from the early days of the Oslo process, he said. Most agreed on the need to start now at the end. Having agreed on the end State, its elements could be implemented in an orderly sequence. In that context, it was important to clearly define the end goal beyond the vision. Far from the principle of internationally facilitated bilateralism, the principles for an end of conflict could only be introduced by the international community. Any and all agreements must be guaranteed by the international community. Israel must know that if it reached final agreement, that the agreement was truly final. The Palestinians must know that provisional steps to reach an agreement would actually get there, that their gains would not be reversed.
There had been much talk about the demise of the Road Map and the Quartet’s incapacity in the face of the continuing economic and political crisis, he said. He believed that the Quartet retained its validity and relevance, thanks to the legitimacy, political strength, and economic power represented by its members. Through consensus, it would be the most efficient and operational tool of the international community. The Road Map remained equally valid. In fact, the twin mechanisms of the Road Map and the Quartet were now more important than ever, and the Road Map’s implementation remained the primary goal at the current stage.
The implementation of Prime Minister Sharon’s withdrawal initiative and the evacuation of settlements in the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank offered an opportunity to revive the peace process, he said. For that to happen, the Israeli redeployment needed to be coordinated with the Palestinian Authority and the Quartet. That was not only possible, but it was a realistic expectation. In his speech preceding the historic Knesset vote on his initiative, Prime Minister Sharon had stated clearly that he supported the end of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territory and the establishment of a PalestinianState alongside the State of Israel. His statements, as well as the Knesset vote, made clear that it was a unique opportunity for the international community to engage in order to revive the peace process.
In many ways, Prime Minister Sharon’s initiative aimed to go further than earlier Israeli Prime Ministers dared to propose, he said. It represented nothing less than a programmatic continuation of the Oslo process, which saw a number of phases and stages of Israeli redeployment. In that sense, the implementation of the Israeli disengagement plan was nothing but a logical step to be taken along the road towards peace. It had the potential to drive the process forward significantly, if the international community and the Palestinians were actively involved and contributed to it.
Another logical next step was the resolution of the wider Arab-Israeli conflict on the regional level in a comprehensive manner, as envisaged in the Arab peace imitative of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah. On the regional level, much more had been achieved than was realized. In an important step, Israeli troops had withdrawn from south Lebanon in May 2000. In June last year, the Secretary-General had announced that Israel had withdrawn its forces from all Lebanese territory, in accordance with resolutions 425 and 426. The process following the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon, the drawing by the United Nations of the so-called Blue Line, and the confirmation of the complete nature of the Israeli withdrawal in accordance with the Council resolutions set an important precedent for the future, he said.
Conditions remained far from perfect, he said. A generally terse, but relatively calm, situation had prevailed along the Blue Line, with worrying exceptions to that in the form of violations from both sides of the Line. Israel had carried out frequent overflights violating Lebanese sovereignty and territorial integrity. From the Lebanese side of the Blue Line, violations had been carried out by Hezbollah and other armed elements. Many of the attacks had taken place in the Shebaa farms area, which the Government of Lebanon, in contrast to the Council’s resolutions, continued to insist were Lebanese territory.
More recently, there had been other violations of the Blue Line, he said. On 28 October, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) had reported that Palestinian armed elements in Lebanon had launched a rocket across the Blue Line into Israeli territory. Today, there had been reports of a similar incident, which UNIFIL was presently investigating. In a new and worrying development, on 7 November, an unmanned aerial vehicle had been launched from the Lebanese side of the Blue Line into Israeli airspace.
On the Syrian-Israeli track, the parties had repeatedly touched upon peace over the past 10 years, he said. President Assad had repeatedly stretched out a hand towards Israel, and peace talks could significantly contribute to stability in the region. While negotiations between Israel and Syria remained suspended, the interests remained unchanged. With the international community’s help, Israelis and Syrians needed to act to return to the negotiation table so as to fully implement resolutions 242 and 338 to realize peace in the region.
He said the Council was the primary reference point for peace in the Middle East. Its decisions set the basic parameters for peace and the process towards achieving it in the region. Resolutions 242 (1967), 338 (1973) and 1397 (2002) outlined the fundamental principles for peace in the Middle East, namely, the principles of land for peace, ending the occupation and a two-State vision. Resolution 1515 of 2003 outlined the road that had been jointly mapped out in the pursuit of peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The resolutions provided the foundations for peace in the Middle East. The Council’s continued engagement would have to guide any revitalization of the peace process in the region. There was no future for peace in the Middle East without the Council.
He said he did not wish to pretend that the reality prevailing in the Middle East was not grim. Yet, he did wish to emphasize that hope and opportunity remained. Today’s briefing, he added, would be his last in his capacity as the Secretary-General’s Special Representative in the region. He thanked the Council for its unfaltering support during his years of service. It had always been a pleasure and honour to be the Council’s guest.