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United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO)
8 October 2013
Keynote address to the 2013 International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East
The status of international peace efforts
Mr. Robert Serry, Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and
Personal Representative of the Secretary-General to the Palestine Liberation Organization and
the Palestinian Authority
Istanbul, 8 October 2013
Members of the media,
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is a pleasure for me to address the 2013 International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East. I would like to thank the organizers from the United Nations Department of Public Information, together with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkey, for their kind invitation. I thank Ambassador Ümit Yalçin for the generous hospitality accorded to us in the beautiful city of Istanbul.
I cannot but find a discussion on Peace in the Middle East at this juncture timely. Even more so since like the Secretary-General – as you just heard in his message – I believe that despite manifold challenges, we are at a moment of renewed hope. In this context, I would like to share with you my assessment of the status of international peace efforts. And of course, I will be glad to take a few questions afterwards.
While I would like to focus my remarks on Israeli-Palestinian dynamics, it is difficult to ignore that only a few hours from here, bloody conflict rages in Syria. Like other neighboring countries, Turkey is bearing the brunt of the influx of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees seeking a safe haven, and many Palestinian refugees are being uprooted once again. The Secretary-General has welcomed the Security Council vote to rid Syria of chemical weapons and offered the United Nations support in every way possible. He has recognized that implementation will be daunting, and made it very clear that all violence must stop and that this agreement does not constitute a license to kill with conventional weapons. But notwithstanding these challenges, he has also expressed hope that a key building block for peace is now in place with the Council’s endorsement of the Geneva Communiqué, and that this will now set in motion a process towards a Geneva II Conference and a peaceful transition for Syria.
With Syria the most dramatic case, the situation in many parts of the Middle East and North Africa remains extremely volatile following the transformations often dubbed “the Arab Spring”.
Against this backdrop, it was a positive development that on 29 July of this year, Israeli and Palestinian representatives resumed direct negotiations, with the agreed objective of achieving a peaceful comprehensive settlement on all final status issues within nine months.
The United Nations Secretary-General visited the region – Palestine, Israel and Jordan – in August to lend the UN’s early support to resumed talks. He was encouraged by what he considered demonstrable seriousness by both President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu to resume direct talks, despite skepticism from their domestic bases, as the only viable path through which a two-State solution may still be achieved. Of course, there remain considerable gaps in how each of them envisages the modalities of a future Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. But I do believe that both leaders realize that a two-state solution is in the best interest of their respective peoples. And I hope both sides also realize that the consequences of yet another failure of negotiations would be dire for Israelis and Palestinians alike, who would risk facing prolonged occupation, violence and conflict. Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas made a courageous decision in returning to talks, and I hope that they can sustain this courage for the tough work ahead – to make substantive progress in the negotiations and reach an agreement. I also hope that the Israeli and Palestinian leaders can transcend narrow-minded zero-sum logic, demonstrate vision, and reach out to each other’s people in making the case for peace.
The renewed momentum injected into negotiations is, to a large part, a result of dedicated efforts by the United States, whose engagement in the region remains key to the peace process. Secretary of State Kerry has been a frequent visitor to the region this year, engaging in tireless shuttle diplomacy, including here in Istanbul. The appointment of an Envoy for the negotiations, Mr. Martin Indyk, is additional testimony to US seriousness. And at the High-Level Debate in New York, President Obama has reiterated that achieving Middle East Peace remains one of the highest US priorities in the region.
Another key factor for the prospects of success of any potential peace agreement is support from regional stakeholders. In this regard, I wish to highlight the importance of the Arab League delegation recently reaffirming the validity of the Arab Peace Initiative and the prospect of ending the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is crucial to build on this opening, and we continue to hope that Israel will find a constructive way to respond to it. In the context of ongoing negotiations, regular consultations with the Arab League continue, in recognition of the API’s potential to be a basis for regional peace and stability. As an important regional power, Turkey is also a key stakeholder in Middle East Peace, and we continue to count on its important contribution to peace efforts.
And last but not least, the Quartet remains actively engaged, having lent its full backing to the US political initiative. Quartet Principals met on 27 September and received a briefing by the parties, represented by chief negotiators Livni and Erekat. I attended that constructive meeting. The Quartet statement on the occasion makes it clear that it is determined to lend effective as delivered support to the efforts of the parties and their shared commitment to reach a permanent status agreement within nine months.
The negotiating teams have held several rounds of talks, and we encourage both sides to accelerate and intensify discussions. The confidentiality of the talks – frustrating as it may seem that we have little visibility of their contents – is, in my view, a sign of their seriousness, and in fact serves to protect their progress.
While you will have understood that I harbor some hope, it remains very guarded. Deep divisions remain between the parties on key issues. But I believe that there is no viable alternative to the vision of a two-state solution, and that the window of opportunity for its achievement may be closing soon. The Ad Hoc Liaison Committee sounded that warning in the communiqué of its September meeting: “Twenty years after the Oslo Agreement, it is urgent to reach a negotiated settlement of the two-state solution, as this may be the last chance to succeed within the “Oslo paradigm”.
Without a political horizon, we should realize that the Palestinian state-building achievements over the past few years are at stake. A gap has been growing between readiness for statehood in the key institutional functions, and the absence of a political horizon. We now have an opportunity to close that gap with continued state-building progress complementing, supporting, and running in parallel with the renewed negotiations.
This means it is now incumbent on the parties to sustain an enabling environment that offers a real chance for negotiations to move forward, take root, and achieve results. As was also highlighted in the latest Quartet statement, both sides should take every possible step to promote conditions conducive to the success of the negotiating process and to refrain from actions that undermine trust or prejudge final status issues. As the Secretary-General just said in his message, “Israelis and Palestinians must quickly see visible peace dividends”. We therefore urgently need positive measures that bring tangible improvements to security and socioeconomic conditions for Israelis and Palestinians alike.
In this context, the United Nations has welcomed the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian economic cooperation, the recent announcement by Israel to grant additional work permits to Palestinians from the West Bank, and important measures for Gaza which I will detail later. The international community is doing its share to create improvements on the ground. Quartet Representative Blair has presented an Economic Initiative to bring transformative economic growth to the Palestinian economy.
However, all efforts to foster a positive climate on the ground, including the aforementioned commendable Israeli gestures, risk being overshadowed by negative trends, if violent incidents together with activities that violate international law undermine the confidence needed for peace negotiations.
In this regard, we have expressed concern about recent operations by Israeli Security Forces in the West Bank which caused fatalities; provocative actions and clashes on the Haram al Sharif/Temple Mount; and demolitions of Palestinian structures. Settlement activities have also continued and our position in this regard remains unequivocal: They are counterproductive and against international law. The Secretary-General has stated that he remains troubled by Israel’s continuing settlement activity, warning that it deepens the Palestinian people’s mistrust in the seriousness on the Israeli side towards achieving peace and can make a two-state solution impossible. All sides should refrain from provocations. The recent killing of two Israeli soldiers in the West Bank and the attack that injured a 9-year old girl in a West Bank settlement near Ramallah have been deeply troubling incidents. Stability in the West Bank is all the more critical as talks are ongoing and parties should exert all efforts to avoid violence and end incitement.
This brings me to Gaza. The situation in the Gaza Strip remains precarious and non-sustainable. But this only makes it more essential that we not forget Gaza in our efforts to bolster stability, strengthen the Palestinian economy, and move forward on the peace track.
The UN plays a key role in mitigating the humanitarian situation in Gaza and supporting the development of the Strip. UN construction work in Gaza totals some USD 450 million and is ongoing. Israel has now also taken welcome steps to liberalize the access of construction materials for the private sector as well as the provision of water for Gaza.
However, many of Gaza’s needs remain unaddressed, and it is now the energy situation we are particularly worried about. As a result of inefficient and obsolete power infrastructure and fuel shortages due to the closing of illegal tunnels, there is a growing deficit of required electricity in Gaza. This means that apart from power blackouts which continue to be daily occurrence for many hours, this is now also threatening to affect essential services, including hospitals and sewage installations. There is an urgent need for a safety net to ensure the continued provision of essential services. We continue our work with all concerned parties to ease the humanitarian pressures on Gaza and further increase access through legal crossings into Gaza. Let me also in this regard welcome Turkey’s contribution to Gaza’s humanitarian and development needs.
The Understanding on the Ceasefire of November 2012 commits the parties to a lifting of the closures on Gaza. Its other main element is adherence to a full calm. Relative quiet has prevailed over the past months, and it is essential to solidify the calm to prevent a reoccurrence of an escalation like in November 2012, when hostilities cost many lives. Ultimately, real and lasting progress can only be realised through the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1860 in all its elements, including Palestinian unity. There has been little progress to date despite a series of meetings between members of Fatah and Hamas to advance the implementation of existing reconciliation agreements. The UN will continue to support Palestinian reconciliation consistent with the PLO commitments and the Quartet principles.
Let me close my remarks by wishing us all fruitful meetings during this seminar. I particularly look forward to the discussions on how representatives of the media, and representatives of the regional youth, or of both, can help advance efforts towards Middle East Peace. I am under no illusion regarding the many frustrations and disappointments left behind by twenty years of inconclusive negotiations since the Oslo Accords. I know they have left the Israeli and Palestinian public wary and deeply skeptical that peace is possible. Even among yourselves, who have been dedicating your efforts as journalists, photographers, activists, or diplomats to promote peace, some may at times feel pessimistic or even cynical about the Middle East Peace Process. But let me here echo Ambassador Ümit Yalçin’s remarks – there is a special role for the media to play, namely being a bridge across the divide, to try and bring about a better understanding about each other’s narrative.
The challenges remain daunting on the ground and in the negotiating room. But I believe that we owe it to the peoples of the region, including Israelis and Palestinians, not to give up on this current – possibly last – chance that we have to realize the long overdue two-state solution – in my view, the only viable solution to end the occupation that started in 1967, meet Israelis’ legitimate security needs, and realize the rightful aspirations for an independent and viable Palestinian State.