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Source: Department of Public Information (DPI)
4 June 2008

General Assembly

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

International Meeting on Question
Of Palestine Holds Session on Road Map Commitments

(Received from a UN Information Officer.)

MALTA, 3 June -- The expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank severely hindered the birth of a viable Palestinian State, an expert panel agreed at the International Meeting on the Question of Palestine this afternoon, but the reasons it continued, despite Israeli commitments to the contrary, was a subject of much debate.

Hagit Ofran, of the Israeli organization Peace Now, said the impasse resulted from the fact that all negotiations since the Oslo discussions in the early 1990s had produced interim agreements, with interim, half-way solutions.  That situation weakened political resolve and empowered those who had other agendas.  She advocated negotiations, instead, on final status matters that dealt with not just a settlement freeze, but the full extent of the eventual settlement evacuation.

Geoffrey Aronson, of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, stressed the role that the settlements played in Israeli defence policy at various stages.  The withdrawal from Gaza was a revision in that policy, that saw evacuation as a way of making Israel more secure.   If that experiment failed, he predicted that it would be almost impossible to dismantle many settlements in the near future.

Asking how the peace process could be rectified to accomplish what needed to be done, including the dismantlement of settlements, Alon Ben-Meir, a professor at New York University, said it was most important to involve all players in the region, erase violence completely from the tactics of both sides and empower the moderates that made up a majority of both the Palestinian and Israeli populations.  Also offering a plea for the disempowerment of extremism and a new drive for peace, the former President of Malta, Guido de Marco, opened the session.

The two-day Meeting was convened this morning in Malta by the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, under the theme of “Advancing the peace process -- Challenges facing the parties”.  It aims to foster greater support by the international community for the creation of a climate conducive to the advancement of final status negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.  Plenary panels tomorrow will examine the effects of the construction of the wall in the occupied West Bank and the importance of finding a solution to the question of Jerusalem.

Statements by Panellists

GUIDO DE MARCO, former President of Malta, recalled being very close to Yasser Arafat who, through bitter experience, had become a leader for peace, and whom should have been better understood by other nations.  Both of them knew that there would be no real peace in the Mediterranean unless the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians was resolved, and there could be no understanding between Europe and either the Muslim world or Israel.   He also recalled visiting Palestinian refugee camps during the first Gulf War, against the wishes of the United States.   He had done it, he said, to draw the parallel between the need for Palestinian sovereignty and the need for Kuwait to regain its sovereignty.

Both Palestinians and Israelis had suffered much, and both wanted the land very strongly, he said.   Right after Oslo, developments had been proceeding in the right direction.   It had been agreed that settlements should be stopped, because their purpose had been to make a Palestinian State impossible.   They had been strategically placed for that purpose, he had seen from the air.  He had told James Baker that the friendship of Arab nations could never be secured until the Palestinian situation was dealt with.   The Madrid Conference had ensued.

He said that after a Christmas spent in Bethlehem with Mr. Arafat, the President had told him of the dilemma posed by the settlements, which had tripled despite the Oslo agreement and were making Palestinians lose respect for their leadership.  When he had told this to Ehud Barak, the Israeli Prime Minister had said that many in the Government were completely against a Palestinian State, despite Oslo.  Mr. Barak did his best, Shimon Perez did his best, but it was not enough.  As a result, the last months of President Arafat’s life became one long plea for Europe to do more to push forward the peace process.

Now that Malta was a member of the European Union, it was his country’s turn to plead for that organization to take up the cause of Middle East peace, which was necessary for both Palestinians and Israelis, he said.  The inalienable rights of Palestinians were the same as any other people, including the right to have one’s home country.   The communalities of all in the region would eventually reign and bring peace, which must come.

HAGIT OFRAN, Director of the Settlement Watch Project of Peace Now, said that the Road Map was a formula developed by the international community to be acceptable to both sides of the Middle East conflict during a time of deep despair.  However, it was not implemented by either side and had itself become, instead, the subject of negotiations.

The settlements article in the Road Map was short and clear, she said, obligating Israel to evacuate any settlement outpost erected since March 2001 and freezing any other settlement activity.  Through May 2008, however, no outposts, except those in the Gaza Strip, had been evacuated, while seven new outposts had been established and most were expanded.  Meanwhile, 8,700 new housing units were constructed in the West Bank and another 3,000 built in settlements in East Jerusalem.  Approximately 55,000 settlers were added in the West Bank, plus another 3,000 in East Jerusalem.

She explained that she described the situation in Jerusalem separately from that of the West Bank, because it had been officially annexed by Israel.  While there was much debate over the future of the West Bank, any Israeli who considered returning Jerusalem was considered a traitor, she said.

The biggest mistake of Oslo was that it was an interim agreement that started with the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the main towns and divided the West Bank into sections.  The evacuation of settlements was put off to the future.  Many settlers had arrived after the agreement, and that was what had brought on Palestinian despair and lack of trust.  The Israeli despair, she explained, came from the fact that death tolls had risen since Oslo and other peace processes.

Meanwhile, she said, all the checkpoints in the West Bank were not there to protect Israel, but instead to protect settlers.  In addition, the separation barrier was also built not just to protect Israel, but in order to protect the settlements.  The majority of Israelis have given up on the West Bank and would be willing to evacuate the settlements.   More approvals for construction had been issued even after Annapolis, however, because Jerusalem and older plans were taken out of the freeze formula.  The only way to change that situation was to go to the end game, the final status agreement, and stop formulating interim agreements.

GEOFFREY ARONSON, Director of Research and Publications of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, said that, when he had first visited the West Bank in 1976, there were only 10,000 settlers in the area and their numbers had since exploded.  The conflict was over land, and settlements were an integral part of it, compromising Palestinian life and prospects for an independent future.

In the early days of Jewish migration in Palestine, he said, settlements had been crucial, because they defined the perimeters of Jewish sovereignty.  That dynamic had not been lost when Israelis encountered the situation following 1967.  In addition, there was a notion that the territories were needed for defending Israel, but defence of those territories would not have been palatable without Israelis living there.  It was inevitable that, over time, the settlements had become something to defend in themselves, and issues of national security in and of themselves.   That could be seen in the route of the security barrier, which set out Israel’s territorial interests of the West Bank and included many settlements.

Israel’s sense of its security needs was often modified, however, sometimes with better repercussions for Palestinians, he said.  Ariel Sharon’s purpose in evacuating Gaza had not primarily been to dismantle settlements, but to change Israel’s security policy.  That action expressed the notion that the country’s security could be enhanced by evacuation.  If the Gaza experiment failed -- if Israelis felt that they could not defend their country from within their own borders -- then evacuation would not proceed anywhere else and might be reversed in Gaza.  At the same time, settlements were still very important to Israel’s sense of security, while they at the same time impeded Palestinian sovereignty and well-being.  There was no easy answer.

ALON BEN-MEIR, Professor of International Relations and Middle East Studies of New York University, said that, 30 years ago, he had advocated for the necessity of a two-State solution and had received threats from both sides.   Since Oslo, that solution had gained a lot of currency, but there were contradictions in the support for it.  Many Israelis, for example, supported a Palestinian State, but did not oppose settlements.  Each new construction in settlements was “a nail in the coffin” of the idea of a Palestinian State.   At the same time, many Palestinians supported a two-State solution and at the same time supported the right of return for Palestinian refugees, which would immediately obliterate the State of Israel.

Seconding the critique of settlements given by the previous speakers, he asked what was going wrong with the Road Map.  He said there were serious impediments to it, including the internal struggles over the two-State solution within each side.  Extremists had usurped the agenda to control what was happening on both sides and moderates on each side were placating them.  Israel could do many things to empower Mahmoud Abbas and other moderates.  The United States, in addition, could equip and train a serious security force for the Palestinian Authority, even if the Israelis objected.   

The cycle of violence was another problem.  The rocket fire from Gaza and the subsequent military retaliations had destroyed any trust that had existed.  “Violence is the mother of all evils,” he said.  This was the number one, two and three issue.   The Israelis had to separate negotiations from attacks; and Palestinians had to learn that there was nothing to be gained by violence.

He said it had also been a mistake to ignore major players in the region, particularly on the part of the United States, which was a crucial part of any peace process.  The United States Administration, for example, had tried to isolate Syria, and that country had reacted by supporting militarist groups.  In addition, the United States Administration had sent out too many emissaries without any criteria for concrete results.  The situation was at a crossroads now, because there would be a new Administration soon.  That Administration should be tackling the Middle East problem from day one.  He advocated contacting the candidates to emphasize the priority of the issue.

He warned that it was most important to prevent extremists from bringing on another generation of suffering.  Sixty years was already too long.  Israelis and Palestinians were either doomed or destined to live together, and the only good conclusion could be two States living side by side in harmony.

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For information media • not an official record

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