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


GA/PAL/762
10 June 1997

NEW REGIONAL PEACE INITIATIVE NEEDED IN MIDDLE EAST,
NON-GOVERNMENTAL ORGANIZATIONS SYMPOSIUM TOLD


A new Middle East peace initiative was needed because the process which began at Oslo was now dead, the Co-Director of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Development in Jerusalem said this afternoon. He was addressing the North American Non-governmental Organizations (NGO) Symposium on the Question of Palestine, as it continued its discussions on the role of the international community in the transition towards permanent status.
The Oslo peace process had aimed at the gradual transfer of territory from Israel to the Palestinians, leading to discussions on sovereignty, Gershon Baskin told the Symposium. However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's policies had emptied Oslo of its main ingredient. A new regional initiative, involving Jordan, Palestine and Israel, could increase confidence in peace efforts and strengthen the chance for Palestinian sovereignty, while helping solve security and economic development issues, he said.

A consultant to the National Council of Churches, Gabriel Habib, said the United States seemed to be trying to prevent Europe and the United Nations from getting significantly involved in the Middle East peace process. To save the Oslo process and reach peace with justice, it must pressure Israel to abide by international law and discontinue the construction of settlements in the territories or face a cut-off of United States aid, he said.

Following the two presentations, participants engaged in a general discussion of the issue.

The NGO Symposium is being held under the auspices of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. It will meet again at 10:30 a.m. tomorrow, 11 June, to hear presentations on efforts to promote joint action by Palestinian and North American NGOs in support of the transition to self-determination and statehood.

Symposium Work Programme

The North American Non-governmental Organizations (NGO) Symposium on the Question of Palestine met this afternoon to continue its consideration of the theme, "Thirty years of occupation -- looking ahead towards self-determination and statehood". It is expected to hear presentations on the subject of its second panel, "Transition towards permanent status -- the role of the international community". Speakers were to address, in particular, the role of North America and of the neighbouring countries.

GABRIEL HABIB, Consultant to the National Council of Churches in the United States, said the Israeli Government's implementation of its version of the Oslo agreement -- based on self-interest and its self-centred concept of security -- was reviving suspicions about Israel's intentions with respect to the Palestinian people. Moreover, it was destroying any remaining mutual confidence, which could lead to the possibility of new wars. The Palestinian people were asking the international community to take urgent steps to pressure the Israeli Government to change its behaviour on the ground and to ensure that war between the two sides did not continue endlessly.

He said the sponsors and supporters of the Oslo agreement should intervene before it was too late and exert pressure on the Israeli Government to state clearly its intentions concerning Palestinian statehood and to work genuinely for partnership and peace. Plans must be devised to protect and develop the Palestinian economy -- which had so far been a survival economy -- and to exert appropriate pressure on the Palestinian Authority to demonstrate its democratic abilities.

The United Nations must try to coordinate the activities of Member States in the cause of development and peace for Israel and Palestine, particularly through activities in Palestinian refugee camps, both within and outside Palestine, he said. The Organization should resist any attempts to change General Assembly resolutions and Security Council decisions relating to Palestinian rights, Jewish settlements and Jerusalem. The United States Government had said it still hoped to salvage the Oslo agreement and peace between Israel and Palestine. However, its influence in that respect was still limited due to its inability to challenge Israel, to whom it still gave arms and funds.

The United States also seemed to be trying to prevent Europe and the United Nations from getting significantly involved in the Middle East peace process, he said. To save the Oslo agreement and reach peace with justice, the United States must apply pressure on Israel to abide by international law and United Nations resolutions and to discontinue the construction of settlements in the occupied territories, including Jerusalem, or face a cut off of United States aid.

He called on non-governmental organizations to monitor the attitudes of the sponsors and supporters of the Oslo agreement, and particularly the United States, with a view to put pressure on them to adopt appropriate policies. Those organizations should promote education programmes to help make the North American people more aware of the Israel-Palestine dynamic. They should also increase the sharing of their resources with Palestinian organizations to enable them to survive and to continue their resistance. Such sharing of resources could also help the Palestinian community develop its socio-economic potential, leading towards the creation of a viable, independent Palestinian state.
GERSHON BASKIN, the Co-Director of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Development, Jerusalem, said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's advance of Israeli settlements in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza had caused a breakdown in bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians. The Oslo peace process aimed at the gradual transfer of territory from Israel to the Palestinians, leading to discussions on sovereignty rather than who held what territory.
He said the game plan had been for Palestinians to possess 90 per cent of West Bank territory before reaching final status agreements on the nature of the Palestinian territory. However, Mr. Netanyahu had changed the rules of the game, emptying Oslo of its main ingredient. According to the Prime Minister, if Palestinians wished to continue discussing final status, they must agree to get only 50 per cent of the territory under their control. His settlement plans made clear his refusal to relinquish additional territories.

The President of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat, could not thwart Israeli plans, and had been unable to rally a frustrated and despairing public, Mr. Baskin said. Hamas was not gaining support, because people did not believe it could deliver. The United States seemed unable or unwilling to influence the sides to get peace back on track. The Palestinians must be better prepared to meet the challenges of negotiations. Too often, they did not prepare their positions or have deals worked out in advance. The Israelis never gave anything away for free, but the Palestinians felt they had nothing left to give. They saw violence or armed struggle as one of the only cards left. That allowed Israel to capture the higher moral ground which, in turn, undermined the Palestinians -- particularly when claims of Palestinian corruption and human rights abuses were being broadcast in the international media.

The Palestinians must verbalize and demonstrate their commitment to peace and coexistence, he said. The moral high ground could not be captured by polemics about who was the victim and who had suffered more. It was unlikely that President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt could keep his esteem in the Arab world and continue to play by Mr. Netanyahu's rules. The current low level efforts to get the sides to the negotiating table would not lead anywhere because Mr. Netanyahu did not want to move forward.

He said the United States should dissociate itself from Israel's settlement policy. Refusing to welcome Mr. Netanyahu at the White House or the United States State Department until there was a change in policy would increase credibility of the United States as a fair mediator and strengthen its role as a leader in solving regional conflicts. A strong United States position, like the one taken after the Gulf War, would impress on both sides the urgent need to make the tough decisions now rather than later.

If the limited time left for the peace process was not used, another opportunity might not return for many years, and only after much bloodshed and suffering, he said. The Oslo peace process might be dead and a new initiative required to move beyond it. The issues were becoming more complex and final status talks might require a more regional approach. A new initiative involving Jordan, Palestine and Israel could add more confidence to the peace process. That would strengthen the chance for Palestinian sovereignty by linking it to a regional framework, while providing better solutions for security and economic development issues.

Discussion

S.B. KARMAKAR, Chairman of the International Committee for Arab-Israeli Reconciliation, asked if it was true that extremist Palestinians and extremist Israelis had spoiled the Oslo agreement?

Mr. BASKIN said extremism itself could not be blamed. The Palestinians present at Oslo were considered by other Palestinians to be too quick to make concessions. At Oslo, it was the Israeli thesis being interpreted by the Israeli representatives. There were very significant problems with that agreement. However, the present situation in Palestine was due to the actions of extremists on both sides. Extremists were now setting the tone, and the moderates were being drowned out.

ELIA ZUREIK, Professor of Sociology at Queens University, Kingston, Canada, said terrorism could also take the shape of oppressive social and economic measures. It must also be acknowledged that people had the right to rise against oppression. The Palestinians were oppressed day-in and day-out, yet they have tried to adhere to the principles of the Oslo agreement, while the Israelis and Prime Minister Netanyahu had violated it time and again.

Mr. BASKIN said he would never deny the Palestinian people the right to rise up against discrimination and to fight the confiscation of their land. However, there was a difference between rising against oppression and blowing up buses. It was also a huge mistake to enter into a competition over which side suffered more. Palestinians needed to honour the Oslo agreement to the letter if they wanted to capture the moral high ground and strengthen their case. In any event, the Oslo peace process was dead, so supporters of the Palestinian people needed to come up with a better strategy than the one they presently were using.

HAIDER ABDEL-SHAFI, a member of the Palestinian Council, said it was important to ask which came first: Israeli violations of the Oslo agreement or acts of violence by the Palestinian people. One could not demand that Palestinian people wait forever when their rights were not being recognized. The Palestinians' commitment to peace was serious and sincere and was awaiting a clear response from the Israeli side. He was not defending suicide attacks or violent acts, but Israel should take full responsibility for the situation.

Mr. BASKIN said it was the 300 Israeli deaths in attacks on buses that buried the peace process. While he empathized with Palestinian frustration, one could not justify the killing of innocent people on either side, anywhere in the world.

ANN LEGGETT, of the Federation of American Arab Organizations, said the essential issue was the practice of segregation and apartheid by the Israeli Government. Was there discussion among progressive and peace-minded Israelis about this situation?

Mr. BASKIN said an overwhelmingly majority of Israelis and Palestinians did not want to live in integrated neighbourhoods. In Jerusalem, there was the problem of military occupation, which was different from apartheid. Israel was segregated by choice and not by force. The question of settlements was the illegal confiscation of lands reserved for a Palestinian state.

ISSA NAKHLEH, of the Arab Higher Committee for Palestine, said the peace process was a fraud. The Israeli
Government wanted to dominate Palestinians and deny their civil and human rights. The United States bore the responsibility for the failure of peace because of its military and financial support of Israel.

WAYNE UNDERHILL, of the Methodist Federation for Social Action, asked if it was possible that the United States Government would change its position in the Middle East peace process?

Mr. BASKIN said he did not know if it was possible for the United States to change its strategy. The United States had not really been involved in Oslo, because it never thought anything would come out of the negotiations and had not taken them very seriously. However, if such a new initiative came from the region, then perhaps the United States would have to take it seriously.

The process that began at Oslo was not going anywhere and would not go anywhere, he said. There was now less mutual understanding in the region, and the peace process had a slimmer chance of working. The Palestinians should be engaged in putting their house in order. Palestinian society needed true democracy.

Mr. HABIB said pressure must be exerted on the Israeli Government, in order to facilitate the peace process, which should be given a chance. The role of the countries in the region, especially Arab countries, was also vital.

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