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23 March 2007

General Assembly

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

(Received from a UN Information Officer.)

ROME, 23 MARCH -- Most expert panellists expressed optimism about the role of parliaments in promoting dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians this morning, as the United Nations International Meeting in Support of Israeli-Palestinian Peace held its second plenary session.

Plenary II discussed a wide range of topics, including the need for compliance with international opinion on the part of both sides to the conflict, the importance of a two-State solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the status of the peace process, particularly in light of mutual violence arising both from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and terrorism in resistance to it.

The experts described their own work and experiences before hearing questions and comments from participants drawn from Government delegations and representatives of intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations.  The theme of Plenary II was “The role of parliaments in promoting dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians”.  Participants discussed three sub-themes: the role of national parliaments; the impact of interparliamentary and regional organizations; and the Euro-Mediterranean partnerships/Barcelona process –- strengthening dialogue for peace and stability in the region.

Experts making presentations to the session were Richard Burden, Member of the House of Commons in the United Kingdom; Shamil Sultanov, Member of the Committee on International Affairs in the State Duma of the Russian Federation; Nadia Hilou, Member of Israel’s Knesset (Labour-Meimad) in Tel Aviv; Abdullah Abdullah, Head of the Political Committee in the Palestinian Legislative Council in Ramallah; Ismail Vadi, Member of the National Assembly of the Parliament of South Africa in Cape Town; and Ran Cohen, Member of the Knesset (Meretz).

Plenary III of the Meeting will convene at 3 p.m. today under the theme “Restoring momentum to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and forging a vision of a final settlement”.

Plenary Session II

RICHARD BURDEN, Member of the House of Commons in the United Kingdom, said there was a need to recognize the professionalism and tenacity of the media operating on the ground, especially in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.  Alan Johnston of the BBC, abducted in Gaza two weeks ago, had been present during Israel’s destruction of a local power station.  He had told the story professionally and without bias.  His pictures and reports spoke for themselves.  His abduction was unacceptable and hopefully all present at the Meeting would be united in calling for his unconditional release.

He said he chaired the British-Palestine All-Party Parliamentary Group, a network of 100 Members of Parliament trying to promote a just peace between Israel and Palestine, and was a member of the House International Development Committee.  That body had recently completed an inquiry into the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory that not only drew attention to the devastating effect that the occupation continued to have on the lives of ordinary Palestinians, but also drew conclusions that fundamentally challenged the United Kingdom/Quartet’s boycott of the Palestinian Authority as both damaging from a development viewpoint and counter-productive to achieving the stated aims of the international community.

Those findings were perhaps more relevant than ever, now that the Palestinian national unity Government had been formed, he said.  The Government of Israel had made clear that it was not prepared to work with the Palestinian Government and had stuck to that position in the weeks following the signing of the Mecca Agreement.  On the positive side, the United States Consul General had met with Salam Fayyad, the new Palestinian Finance Minister, with whom the Quartet had had close contact for years and who the United States and the European Union had long been praising for his commitment to transparency in Palestinian Authority finances.  But the real test of whether he would be able to do his job was whether the international community worked through the institutions of the Palestinian Authority that it had itself helped to create on matters of finance and development assistance, rather than maintaining its boycott and inventing successful ways to channel assistance circumventing the Palestinian Authority.

He said the European Union’s Javier Solana had said the national unity Government “did not comply fully” with the Quartet’s three principles.  There was no future in believing that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be resolved by violence or military means.  But there was no known situation where the demand for explicit and completely unconditional renunciation of violence was applied only to one side but not the other.  While there was nothing wrong with the Quartet principles as key parts of any durable peace, peace meant both sides renouncing violence between them.  It must be founded on the acceptance that previous agreements would be honoured.  But to treat those principles as preconditions made it much more likely that those principles would become an excuse not to move the peace process forward rather than a means to move it forward.  However, whatever the Government of Israel may say, it understood that both Hamas and Fatah were part of the reality of Palestinian life and that, sooner or later, it would need to talk to them.

SHAMIL SULTANOV, Member of the Committee on International Affairs in the State Duma of the Russian Federation, said he was pessimistic about the prospects for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not only because of the strained global context.  A former Prime Minister of Turkey, one of the world’s foremost Muslim leaders at the time, had recounted to him an encounter with Margaret Thatcher, then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, during a 1992 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit discussing the global consequences of the disappearance of the Soviet Union.  Mrs. Thatcher had turned to him and said “you are next”, in what had appeared to be a simple joke, not about Turkey or himself personally, but about the Muslim world.

He recalled also that, in 1992, the Western countries had refused to recognize election results in Algeria, where a bloody civil war had erupted soon thereafter.  A similar scenario had unfolded in Tajikistan.  That same year, the late Yassir Arafat had been forced to sign the Oslo accords.  More recently, John Bolton, former Permanent Representative of the United States to the United Nations, had said that the partition of Iraq corresponded to his country’s long-term interests.  Not long ago, British commandos had tried to blast a Muslim mosque in Iraq while dressed in Muslim traditional robes in a bid to pit Iraq’s Shia and Sunni sects in a civil war.

He said the Palestinian problem was a key question, not only for the Arab countries, but for the whole Muslim world, relations with which were increasingly important for the Russian Federation.  President Vladimir Putin had declared recently that the country was also part of the Islamic world.  Nuclear warfare had been employed in the Second World War and, in the next 20 years it would be launched in the Middle East, where there was growing regional instability.  It was doubtful that there would be a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem and the need now was to concentrate on increasing support for the heroic Palestinian people.

NADIA HILOU, Member of the Knesset, said she was a Christian Arab living in the mixed city of Jaffa.  There were 10 Arab Members of the Knesset, all Palestinian by origin and most with family members in the Palestinian Authority.  Even though they belonged to different parties and had differing ideologies, they were all committed to the peace process and the establishment of a Palestinian State, both because the Palestinian people had a right to a State of their own and because they knew that the attainment of complete political, economic and social equality by Israeli Arabs depended on the attainment of a real and durable peace.

She said she had devoted her whole life –- even before entering the political scene –- to advancing the rights and equality of Israel’s Arab citizens, to promoting women’s rights and to furthering the peace process.  Dialogue was one of the most important methods to try and achieve all those worthy goals.  Until the early 1970s, Arab Knesset Members had been unable to contribute in any way to an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, because such a dialogue did not exist.  Today they were viewed by those of their Palestinian brethren seeking peace as potential facilitators of dialogue.  Regrettably, the Government of Israel did not use their good offices to promote the peace process.

Among the Jewish Members of the Knesset, as among its 12 parliamentary groups, there were widely varying views about the peace process and the value of dialogue, she said.  Unfortunately, today there was little or no progress in the peace process and the opportunities for dialogue were much smaller than they had been 10 years ago.  There was also a major retreat in the activities of Israel’s peace movements due to the generally pessimistic atmosphere.  But despite the fact that, from an Israeli perspective, the current Palestinian Government was problematic because of its official policy regarding Israel, no opportunity should be missed to hold dialogue with anyone on the Palestinian side who was willing to talk.  There should certainly be no boycott of the other side.  That should also be the Israeli approach to signals from various Arab capitals regarding willingness to break the deadlock and talk.

ABDULLAH ABDULLAH, head of the Political Committee of the Palestinian Legislative Council in Ramallah, responded to Mr. Burden’s remarks by saying he knew Alan Johnston personally as a well-respected journalist, and it was unfortunate that the chaotic situation in Gaza made it difficult to secure his immediate release.

Turning to the role of parliaments, he recalled that in 1996 the Inter-Parliamentary Union had adopted a resolution to form a committee concerned with convening an international conference on the Middle East.  Back in 1992, right after the Madrid Conference, the European Union had established a process to promote peace between northern and southern Mediterranean countries.  However, the Israeli Government had warned Avraham Burg, a former Speaker of the Knesset, against legitimizing the Palestinian cause by participating in such inter-parliamentary processes.

He said there was no doubt that the peace process was in stalemate.  Israeli policy since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin had been to destroy any chance of peace.  If any Israeli Government was serious, it must stop any policy or practice that contradicted the peace process, including land confiscations, settlement expansion and the isolation of the Palestinian territories in “ Bantustans” aimed at obstructing the formation of a viable and contiguous State.

There must be steps to pave the way for confidence-building measures, he stressed.  After so much separation resulting from war and bloodshed, there was a need to bridge those divisions by avoiding the dehumanization, demonization and humiliation of the Palestinian people.  The Occupied Palestinian Territory contained 545 checkpoints intended deliberately to humiliate Palestinians, in addition to unofficial “flying checkpoints” meant to pressurize the Palestinians psychologically.  Confidence-building measures were needed to make the people on both sides, if not friends, at least more neighbourly towards each other.

Also needed were serious steps towards conflict-resolution rather than prolongation, he said.  Israel must end its occupation of Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem.  However, Israel had taken no steps in that direction and instead was daily sending its soldiers into villages and refugee camps to destroy homes and carry out assassinations and abductions, while demanding that the Palestinians end the violence.  The Palestinian Legislative Council had succeeded in creating the national unity Government, but Israel and other countries were saying it fell short of recognizing Israel.  Israel had prevented its President from addressing the Palestinian Legislative Council for fear of legitimizing the Palestinian cause.  The Palestinian side was ready to recognize Israel if the other side was ready to reciprocate.  After all, the Hamas-led Government had supported the ceasefire in Gaza for more than a year, but the Israelis had rejected its proposal to extend it to the West Bank.

Recalling that President Bush had asked Israel more than once to stop constructing and expanding settlements, he said it had continued the expansion while desecrating holy Muslim places under the cover of rebuilding bridges.  In reality Israel was putting its own stamp on the site and erasing the Palestinian and Arab character of those places.  Israel had lied about the construction of the separation wall, claiming it was a temporary structure for security, while it was actually separating Palestinians from Palestinians and eating into their territory.  However, there was still a chance to resolve the conflict and create a world safe for all human beings without separation by religion, colour or race.

ISMAIL VADI, Member of the National Assembly of the Parliament of South Africa, delivering an address on behalf of Speaker Baleka Mbete, said that the country’s parliamentarians believed unanimously that there was no military or violent solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The protracted nature of the conflict, the enormous suffering on both sides, the damage to their respective economies and societies and the tragic loss of many lives over decades demanded a hastening and intensification of international efforts to find a solution.  Parliamentarians were equally concerned that the recent display of internal Palestinian violence had eroded support for peace, making dialogue and the understanding of the other’s perspective more urgent than ever.  The principal parties to the conflict should return to the negotiating table to establish an independent Palestinian State based on the pre-June 1967 borders, alongside a secure Israel.

Both the South African Parliament and the Government had hosted delegations of public representatives from the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel to share South Africa’s own experiences of peaceful transition from an authoritarian and undemocratic State to a democratic social order, he said.  The important points raised from the South African experience that the parties thought were relevant for the Middle East included:  the maintenance of effective channels of communication at all times and under all circumstances as a vital requirement for the peace process; the need for the peace camps on each side to strengthen and mutually empower each other as a partner in the process; and the need to take into consideration the fears and concerns of the other side and to engage seriously with them.  In addition, negotiations should not be approached from the perspective of a winner or loser; it was in each party’s interest that its interlocutor was satisfied by any agreement reached.  The process should at no point be hostage to extremists or their actions.

Noting that President Thabo Mbeki remained engaged with the Palestinian question, he said the South African leader had written in mid-February that the conclusion of the Mecca Agreement must serve as a firm signal that the rest of the world must now end all measures to isolate the Palestinian Authority; that the Government of Israel was also faced with the challenge of responding positively to the Mecca Agreement; and that Israel –- the more powerful side –- must take conscious and deliberate actions and not wait for perfect conditions for the construction of peace.  The President had concluded that the present moment demanded that all those charged with the responsibility to lead should dare to sue for peace, inspired by the same courage with which they had dared to go to war.

He said that a parliament, as an expression of the national will, could play a vital role in mobilizing public opinion on the need for a peaceful solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; actively support initiatives in regional institutions and in civil society; and promote awareness on aspects of international humanitarian law, international resolutions, peace agreements and human rights in so far as they related to the region.  They could also foster people-to-people interactions across the divide.  With the deepening crisis in the Middle East as a whole, the citizens of the world might not be wrong in believing that their parliaments and parliamentarians had failed the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.  That negative perception must never prevail.  In their own struggle against apartheid, South Africans had coined the slogan “freedom in our lifetime”, which could be adapted to read “freedom in Palestine in our lifetime”.

RAN COHEN, Member of the Knesset (Meretz), recalling his founding of the Israeli New Left, said that group had called for a two-State solution when less than 1 per cent of Israel’s Jewish population supported it.  Now, more than 70 per cent of them and more than 70 per cent of Palestinians believed in the two-State solution.  There was, therefore, no reason to be pessimistic.  Real negotiations were all the more important given the formation of the Palestinian National Unity Government and next week’s meeting of the Arab League in Riyadh.  The best time to open negotiations was now, which made the Rome Meeting very timely.  The two-State solution was the best one, since both sides had tried everything else, including destroying each other, without even coming close to a solution.

As one born in Baghdad, he said that, just as every Jew was promised the right to a home in Israel, every Palestinian should have the right to a home in an independent Palestine.  However, it was very sad that nobody in the Meeting had mentioned the role of terrorism.  Like the occupation, terrorism was bad for both the Israelis and the Palestinians.  It was impossible to occupy others, granting them only the bare minimum of civil rights, and remain democratic.  Terrorist attacks in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem had given Likud electoral victory following Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, overturning the high poll ratings of the Labour party.

Terrorism had led to the effective end of the peace process and the weakening of the peace camp, he said.  It was important to reduce the power of both the terrorism and of the occupation.  Both sides bore responsibility.  Hamas had now recognized the importance of listening to the international community.  Now was the time to open real negotiations as opposed to the current so-called negotiations between President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, which were mere photo opportunities.

In the ensuing discussion, one participant said he had been impressed by Mr. Abdullah’s presentation.  He did not agree on all points, but he shared the same aims.  In reaching the dialogue, the first step was ending dehumanization, which included the killing of Israelis.  Regarding checkpoints in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, they had been reduced by half in the West Bank, and the Minister of Defence was engaged in a dialogue with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in that regard.  However, the expansion of settlements was not in the spirit of Oslo, and that was a failure.  Yet, it would also be impossible to freeze settlement construction; the solution was to relocate the settlers.

Another participant said the United Nations and donor countries had a lot of funding power and should finance a joint session of the Israeli Knesset and the Palestinian Legislative Council.

Regarding terrorism and occupation, another participant emphasized that Palestinians and Israelis were not in an equal situation.  Palestinians had been under occupation for a long time, while terrorism had started in the 1990s.  Terrorism may have cost the Labour party electoral victory, but, on the other hand, Israeli terrorism had caused Hamas to win the Palestinian elections.

Another participant asked why the pressure was always on the Palestinians to make sacrifices and why Israel was never punished for non-compliance, and asked what kind of role parliaments could play to ensure that the rules laid down were followed equally by both sides?

The representative of Palestine, pointing out that there were more Israelis on the panel than Palestinians, said he was delighted that the majority of opinion on both sides favoured a two-State solution.  But it was sad that the Israeli Government did not represent that mood, which was more accurately reflected by the Palestinian Authority.  Just as Hamas had recognized the importance of listening to the voice of the international community, it would be appropriate for Israel to set an example by complying with the mass of resolutions passed by the international community.

Responding to comments and questions, Mr. COHEN agreed with the idea of inviting parliamentarians from both sides to sit in one room.  Regarding terrorism and occupation, it was true that Israelis and Palestinians were not in an equal situation, but Israelis viewed terrorism in the same way that Palestinians saw the occupation.

Mr. VADI said South Africa was not in a position to prescribe solutions to the Palestinians, but could only offer its own experience from which the Palestinians could extract and adapt the appropriate lessons.  It was better to set about direct negotiations than to set preconditions.  The South African parties had been in negotiations between 1990 and 1994, but it had taken the assassination of Chris Hani, leader of the South African Communist Party, for the African National Congress and the liberation movement to set a one-year deadline for the process.

Painful compromises were sometimes necessary, he said, adding that political elites could make a deal and consequently have a difficult time selling the deal to their constituencies.  It was necessary to isolate extremists on both sides who were not prepared to compromise or show flexibility in terms of strategy and tactics.

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For information media • not an official record

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