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European Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighbourhood policy
Middle East Peace Process
Strasbourg, 19 January 2006
Thank you very much Mr President.
It is an honour to address you today on the Middle East Peace Process. It is particularly timely since I have just returned from a visit to Gaza, the West Bank and Israel earlier this week.
I had three objectives for my trip: (1) lend support to democracy building in the run-up to the Palestinian legislative elections; (2) underline the importance of EU financial support; (3) raise the visibility of a number of EU projects, notably in Gaza.
This is a critical moment for the Middle East. In both Israel and the Palestinian territories, there have been tremendous changes in the political landscape. I hope these elections will bring two leaderships ready and able to inject new vigour into the Peace Process.
I made it clear to both Israelis and Palestinians that the Commission will continue to offer our support to all those who seek peace by peaceful means. This means in particular, whatever the composition of the new Palestinian government, full respect of the principles in the Interim Association Agreement and Neighbourhood Policy Action Plan that we have agreed with the Palestinian Authority. These principles include respect of human rights and the rule of law and commitment to the Roadmap.
The Palestinian Authority has given the international community assurances that the elections will take place free from violence and intimidation and according to international standards. President Abbas has also made clear that acceptance of the Oslo accords and the Roadmap forms the basis for participation in the future government.
Acting Prime Minister Olmert assured me that Israel would facilitate the holding of these elections. His government took the difficult decision - in the context of an Israeli election campaign - to allow voting in East Jerusalem. We have welcomed that decision, and hope that this constructive spirit will also help to resolve any remaining logistical and practical aspect of the elections. Within the security constraints, it will also be important that Israel does all it can to allow free movement for voters and candidates in the Palestinian territories up to and including polling day.
The EU is supporting the Palestinian elections with the biggest Election Observation Mission - 240 observers, including 50 of your colleagues. I visited the Observation Team led by Véronique de Keyser, and was most impressed by her dedication and professionalism and that of her staff.
I was also impressed to meet the Chairman of the Central Electoral Commission, Hanna Nasir. Thanks to the sustained support of the EU, the CEC has established itself as one of the most credible and respected institutions in the Palestinian territories. During my visit, I announced another €1.4 million to help with voter registration and polling activities which brings our support to the electoral process to €18.5 million.
One of the purposes of my visit to Gaza was to raise the profile of the important work we are doing, providing urgent assistance to make Palestinians’ ordinary lives more bearable. We are improving the health system, building schools, and repairing roads. I inaugurated some public works programmes, and announced the launch of four new energy and environment infrastructure projects in Gaza worth €20 million. We are working with all possible speed, but the security situation is not making our work any easier.
Yet revitalising Gaza’s economy is essential. What I saw only strengthened my conviction, and I will continue to press this point in the Quartet and with Israel. We must continue to improve free movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza. So I have relaunched the procurement process for a €25 million cargo terminal at the airport, to help facilitate Palestinian trade once the airport is reopened. Of course, we will only be able to go ahead with the project once we have the agreement of both sides.
Yet we will not be able to step up travel in and out of Gaza without properly managed borders. So we will provide a further €3 million package of support for the Rafah border mission as well as the further development of Palestinian customs.
I visited General Pistolesi and his team at the EU Border Assistance Mission, and was moved by what I saw: Europeans helping ordinary Palestinians to move across the frontier with Egypt for the first time in many years.
I made clear to both my Israeli and Palestinian interlocutors that the EU is contributing substantially to creating the conditions for a two state solution. Like everyone involved, we face major challenges, but we are in it for the long haul. We have been a consistent and reliable partner for both sides.
But to make progress, both sides must move.
Israel should take steps to implement the agreement brokered in November by Quartet Special Envoy James Wolfensohn on improving movement and access – the port, the airport, the link between Gaza and West Bank and movement within the West Bank.
And the Palestinian Authority must take charge of law and order and public finances. It must take serious steps to relaunch its reform programme, and respect its commitments under the Interim Association Agreement and the European Neighbourhood Policy Action Plan.
At this critical juncture, our message is clear: the need for negotiations; ceasing all action threatening a two-state solution; the importance of imposing law and order; and fighting terrorism.