Press Release
Department of Public Information · News Coverage Service · New York

24 May 2000



(Received from a UN Information Officer.)

ATHENS, 23 May -— At the first plenary session of the United Nations International Meeting in Support of a Peaceful Settlement of the Question of Palestine and the Establishment of Peace in the Middle East, taking place at the Holiday Inn Athens between 23 and 24 May, participants examined the theme of “Final status negotiations and Palestinian statehood”.

Ambassador Salah Bassiouny, Chairman of the Cairo Peace Society and Member of the International Alliance for Arab-Israeli Peace, said the way in which Israel was currently negotiating with the Palestinian Authority demonstrated continuous negative actions to peace.

Citing various examples, Mr. Bassiouny said that since the Government of Mr. Barak had come to power, it had permitted over 3,000 new settlements in the West Bank. It suspended negotiations on the Syrian track due to its unacceptable interpretation of the Rabin depository, that clearly stated withdrawal to the 4 June lines. And at the same time as it announced its decision to withdraw from Lebanon, it continued raids against that country to cover its de facto defeat by the Lebanese resistance. All those actions raised the question of whether the Israeli Government was sincerely committed to achieving a just, comprehensive and lasting peace, Mr. Bassiouny said.

Agreement on the framework of the final status arrangement should have been concluded two weeks ago, Mr. Bassiouny said. That has not happened, and against that failure, two developments stood out: the proposed map for the Palestinian State, and the proposal to accept Abou-Dis as the capital of the Palestinian State, leaving the future of East Jerusalem to be negotiated at a later stage. The proposal to accept what was being offered now and to postpone decision on the rest of the Palestinian territory contradicted the national legitimate rights of the Palestinian people, Mr. Bassiouny said, adding that leaving the issue of Jerusalem until future negotiations was totally unacceptable, and a “time bomb”. How could the existence of 233,000 Palestinians living in East and West Jerusalem be ignored? he asked.

Ayelet Ophir, Board Member of B’Tselem and Founder of the Movement against Administrative Detention in Tel Aviv, said that no serious and comprehensive solution could take place without there first being change -- possibly more profound and slower than the political solution -- in the emotional positions held by Israelis towards Palestinians and by Palestinians towards Israelis.

Whether or not there was justification for the actions taken during the war of 1948, which Israelis referred to as the war of independence, Ms. Ophir said that she was unable to justify Israeli children knowing nothing about the history of the people who have been living on the same land longer than the Israelis, and who would be living alongside Israel for many years to come.

The problem, said Ms. Ophir, stemmed from the way national memories were used as educational tools. Every national memory must obliterate the memory of the “other” in order to ensure political and cultural success, she explained. As long as each side perceived itself as the true and single victim while denying the victimization of the other, Israeli children would not be able to candidly cope with their being perpetually linked with their Palestinian neighbours. And in order to realize the objective of taking the “other” into account, the cooperation of the political and educational institutions of the Palestinians was also required.

Regarding the issues of refugees and the right of return, Ms. Ophir said that those were among the few issues over which Israeli society was almost totally united, the majority opinion being that the return of the 1948 refugees to their homeland must not be allowed. Recognition and financial compensation were possible, she said, but return to the homes of their fathers and grandfathers would remain a distant and unrealized dream.

Ms. Ophir added, however, that despite all the obstacles, it was still possible to find rays of light and events showing that Israelis and Palestinians could live together as neighbours. In order to achieve that goal, she said, the two sides must exchange fear for curiosity, fanaticism for judicious flexibility, and bitter memories for great hope.

According to Geoffrey Aronson, Editor of the Report on Israeli Settlement in the Occupied Territories, Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington, D.C., most of Israel’s leadership, including Prime Minister Barak, have despaired of reaching an all-encompassing final status agreement, either in September or at any time in the foreseeable future. Instead, Israelis and Palestinians have resurrected a plan for an extended interim agreement, which could accommodate both the Palestinian desire for a State and Israel’s desire for territory beyond the June 1967 borders.
Mr. Aronson said that conclusion was based on the fact that no amount of goodwill, no building upon the achievements of the interim period and no increase in trust between Israelis and Palestinians could bridge the gap on the main elements of a final status agreement, particularly land, settlements and refugees. In other words, he said, the alchemists of the Oslo process could not, it seems, turn straw into gold.

The idea of postponing or establishing timetables for implementation measured in decades was not only an Israeli idea, Mr. Aronson said. Some Palestinians also believed that a partial resolution of certain final status issues, along with the postponement of certain other issues, was the most realistic policy for negotiators.

Such a scenario would mean that the Palestinian State would claim all of the West Bank and Gaza, while having de facto control of approximately half of it, and that Israel would annex 10 to 20 per cent of the West Bank, Mr. Aronson said,
adding that such an arrangement need not exclude either security cooperation or reasonably peaceful relations between Israel and Palestine. Finally, the ownership of the remaining 20 to 30 per cent of the disputed area remaining under effective Israeli sovereignty would be negotiated in an “interminable” peace process.
Sotiris Roussos, Coordinator of the Centre for Mediterranean and Middle East Studies in Athens, said that the goal of the final status negotiations should be to create a peace dividend or a viable peace, one that ensured economic development and prosperity for the people. If the main socio-economic problems in the region were not addressed, no peace could succeed, he added.
The key word of the final status negotiations should be partnership, Mr. Roussos said. The creation and build-up of a partnership between Palestinians and Israelis and of a larger partnership between Palestinians, Israelis and Jordanians was essential, but such a partnership could only be “fruitful” if created on equal bases.

Citing examples of the importance of partnership, Mr. Roussos mentioned issues of great importance to Israel, such as security, noting that nobody could guarantee the security of Israel without the cooperation of the Palestinians. How could Israel have a secure environment while surrounded by Palestinian poverty and unemployment? he asked. Likewise, Israel’s wish to achieve economic integration into the regional economy could not be realized without normalization with other Arab countries, or without the prior establishment of a lasting and comprehensive peace in the Middle East.

Water resources were another example that Mr. Roussos gave to illustrate his point about the need for partnership. Israel’s point of view was that it should take full control of the management of water resources, because it has better technology and know-how, whereas the Palestinian point of view was that water resources should be equitably managed according to needs, population and the situation of both areas. But Israel must realize that it could not manage water resources without partners, Mr. Roussos emphasized. After all, nobody could manage the water resources of the Jordan Valley without the cooperation of Jordan, as draining on one bank of the Jordan River would have tremendous effects on the other bank of the river. There was no way out of partnership, he added.

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