21 June 2001


(Received from a UN Information Officer.)

PARIS, 19 June -- The international media encounter on the question of Palestine, organized by the United Nations Department of Public Information (DPI), held its second session at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) headquarters today in Paris, hearing discussions in the morning on: "The peace process: breaking the deadlock" and in the afternoon on "What the future holds". Numerous questions were raised by local and international correspondents attending the encounter. Shashi Tharoor, Interim Head of DPI, was the moderator for the session.

Morning Session: "The Peace Process : Breaking the Deadlock"

SHASHI THAROOR, Interim Head of DPI, recalled that, only a few years ago, hopes for peace were soaring, as people began to believe in the possibility of a just, comprehensive and lasting peace in the Middle East. Today, the mood was one of pain and suffering, but the Mitchell report provided a sliver of hope. The Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, said that he considers the report as a basis to break the deadlock and build a bridge back to negotiations towards a just, lasting and comprehensive peace in the Middle East on the basis of Security Council resolutions 242 and 338.

The keynote speaker, TERJE ROED-LARSEN, United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and Personal Representative of the Secretary-General to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority, underlined the principles of Oslo: land for peace, based on Security Council resolutions 242 and 338; the end of occupation; total rejection of violence and terrorism; the need for security for both parties; and Israel’s right to exist in security. "Gradualism", or keeping hope by moving forward continuously, was essential and had been a successful approach up to 1996. Hope for peace was growing and the living conditions of the Palestinians had improved. The tactic of Oslo was continuous economic, social and political progress on the ground. However, the basic flaw of Oslo was that there was no third party mechanism to oversee implementation.

The gradualism process had been broken, he said. Ceremonies took place which produced documents that were not implemented. On the Palestinian side, two major issues produced an environment in which any incident could trigger demons and violence: the continuous expansion of the settlements and the lack of progress on territorial issues. On the Israeli side, there was concern about Palestinians implementation of the security commitments. There was a crisis in waiting. The event on 28 September 2000 became the trigger mechanism.

Now, reported Mr Roed-Larsen, there was real misery on the Palestinian side: death, hunger, fear and frustration. Poverty bred hate, hate created violence. On the Israeli side, there was fear and a sense of isolation. Bombs recreated the historical trauma of the Jewish people. The foundations for peace had to be rebuilt. The Mitchell report was the only valid document which could produce such foundations. Using the metaphor of the "House of Peace", Mr. Roed-Larsen said that improvement of the living conditions and the economy of the Palestinians provided the floor of the House of Peace. Political progress and the restoration of hope in Gaza and the West Bank were like the walls. Security for both parties became the roof. But it was essential that the political issue be addressed in a parallel way with security issues. He said: "It is impossible to create security without peace, and there is no peace without a just solution".

The three sets of recommendations contained in the Mitchell report (security, economic, political) had to be dealt with simultaneously, though there could be some sequencing in implementation, he said. The Mitchell report produced the only hope for getting the parties back to the negotiating table and reducing the violence. Leadership was needed on both sides with the ability to make very painful compromises. Mr. Roed-Larsen stressed the need for the implementation in full of the report and for precise timelines. Referring to the need for a referee, he concluded that the parties would have to agree on some sort of third party mechanism.

NABIL SHAATH, Minister for Planning and International Cooperation of the Palestinian Authority, accepted the overall presentation of Mr. Roed-Larsen as quite valid. He recalled that Oslo produced the first real bilateral meetings between the two parties. There was euphoria and budding partnership at the government and grass-roots levels. Unfortunately, all timetables had been broken. Less than 18 per cent of the West Bank was in full control of the Palestinian Authority, and Israel had deepened its colonization. Looking back, Dr. Shaath said that the Palestinians should have never moved one inch without any stop to all the settlements after 1994, and he blamed the United States for supporting the Israeli settlements.

According to the Minister, the Mitchell report was not "the best report in the world", but it was a fair compromise. The report did not set sequential conditional stages. The recommendations had to be implemented together as a package deal. The process would be sequential in terms of implementation, but simultaneous in terms of planning. A precise timeline was needed. He saw the need for a third party to decide, but doubted that Israel would accept that. To illustrate that Israel did not always object to a third-party involvement, Dr. Shaath found it very significant that the Secretary-General used United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) vehicles to shuttle between Ramallah and Jerusalem. Finally, he stated that the European observers stationed in Bethlehem had created a perfect ceasefire. Europe could play a role in close alliance with the United States. It was time that the international community stepped in to create conditions for peace.

General (Ret.) AMNON LIPKIN-SHAHAK, former cabinet Minister and Chief of Staff of Israel, speaking as a private citizen, felt that the DPI encounter yesterday was like "a meeting of the Arab League" and not balanced enough. Looking back, he said that if Camp David had not ended in failure, some settlements would now be inhabited by Palestinians and not Israelis. He said the visit of Mr. Sharon to the Temple Mount was a pure political act targeted at Prime Minister Barak who had made some statements showing flexibility on the issue of Jerusalem.

The situation was now the most difficult since 1967, he said. Both sides would have to make difficult concessions. The Palestinians must understand Israel's sensitivity on the question of security. The General deplored the collapse of trust which had created an unprecedented level of hatred on both sides.

He said it was necessary to start rebuilding confidence as soon as possible. That included ending violence and terrorism to restore trust. Life must be brought back to normal. That included no limitation of movement of people and having a political dialogue together with a dialogue on security issues. An international effort could be created to give the Palestinian refugees decent living conditions. The leadership on both sides must implement what was promised and agreed upon. There was no other choice, but to reach an agreement.

ROBERT MALLEY, Senior Policy Adviser at the Centre for Middle East Peace and Economic Development, and Special Assistant to former United States President William Clinton on Near-Eastern Affairs, reflected upon the characteristics of the current deadlock. He saw three deadlocks in one: a psychological deadlock with the breakdown of trust on both sides; a tactical deadlock, the two leaders having different views on how to move forward; and a political deadlock having to do with the permanent status. He insisted that the international community, in the person of the Secretary-General and through Europe and the United States, had to intervene quickly because it could not leave to either side a monopoly to decide if the other side had lived up to its side of the bargain. The international community must help with the immediate imposition of a political calendar to implement all sides of the Mitchell report.

Afternoon Session: "What the Future Holds"

Mr. ROED-LARSEN, answering questions raised during the floor discussion of the morning session, said the United Nations was doing more than most in the Middle East. In fact, it was playing a multiple role in the region: political, social, economic, and in the field of peacekeeping with the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in Syria, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in Lebanon, and UNTSO headquartered in Jerusalem. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was the largest United Nations agency with 22,000 employees servicing millions of Palestinian refugees. Secretary-General Kofi Annan played a central role in convening the Sharm El-Sheikh conference and establishing the Mitchell Committee. The Mitchell report now was the only relevant document to bring the parties out of this unfortunate situation.

To a direct question about the United Nations being a third party, Mr. Roed-Larsen said that in an ideal world the United Nations could be everywhere. The United Nations has to work with its partners, and this was why he often used the expression "coalition". Besides the regional Powers, the United States represented power, the European Union money, and the United Nations legitimacy. Any third party would be impossible if not accepted by both parties.

Finally, in answer to a comment made this morning by Dr. Shaath, he said that the Secretary-General did not travel in UNTSO vehicles, but flew from Ramallah to Jerusalem in a United Nations helicopter. Mr. Roed-Larsen reiterated that he believed in "gradualism": first things should come first, and the recommendations of the Mitchell report should be addressed as a package.

Dr. SHAATH said that a solution was desirable and feasible. He recalled that President Arafat felt that Prime Minister Barak did not implement many of the things that were due. The settlements continued to be built at the same rate. Looking back, he added that Camp David was an excellent effort, but meant too little for the Palestinians, while Taba came too late for the Israelis. However Taba was the first real effort at negotiating the final status of the settlements. According to the Minister, the "blaming game" started with President Clinton and then escalated. The Palestinians needed sovereignty and an independent economy. Even though 65 per cent of the Israelis still thought that Mr. Sharon did a good job, a significant majority believed in peace. Similarly, despite all the suffering, a good number of Palestinians thought that the only way out was a negotiated peace.

General LIPKIN-SHAHAK compared the situation to a "sick body that suffered two serious threats: cancer and high fever". Although cancer was more dangerous, the high fever must be treated first, otherwise the patient would be lost. "Why should I trust you when I feel I have been betrayed so many times"? ask both parties. The General agreed with Dr. Shaath that Taba came too late. He doubted that the parties could soon go back to where they stood in Taba. The Mitchell report was the only thing that they had now in front of them. The violence must be stopped immediately. It was necessary to bridge the gap between the parties gradually and rebuild trust.

PHYLLIS BENNIS, Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, Washington, D.C., considered that the question of Palestine was a global issue. In her view, the United States bore a mostly negative responsibility in the current events. Oslo was dead, and there was a need for an entirely new peace process that put the United Nations at the centre stage on the basis of international law. The United Nations should be the third party because, unlike the United States, it was not bound by support for one side, but by opposition to occupation. Mrs. Bennis recalled that in his statement yesterday, the Secretary-General spoke of the Palestinians being "in the grip of an occupying Power". The two sides faced not only a massive disparity of power, but a disparity of legitimacy. Only the United Nations could address such disparity and ensure justice.

Sir IAN GILMOUR, former Secretary of State for Defence and Deputy Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, saw no sign of the present Israeli administration being better than the previous one. He deplored the illegal settlements in the occupied territories. According to him, the situation in Gaza, where the conditions were dire and dreadful, was an "affront to civilization".

Professor YULI TAMIR described the three vicious circles that were part of the Middle East reality. The first one related to the fear of each side to surrender to violence. A way out was to agree to a timetable and to stick to it. The second vicious circle had to do with debating issues of a symbolic nature such as Jerusalem. The best was to avoid philosophical discussion and go directly to concrete aspects. Finally, she referred to the fear of the "hard" or "big" questions. She concluded in saying that progress had been achieved in terms of discussion relating to the Middle East. The two sides agreed that there was a conflict between two peoples, and they should be given two States. She considered that the encounter would show to public opinion that there was hope -- but that hope had to be reconciled with reality.

Concluding Remarks

Mr. THAROOR, Interim Head of the DPI and Moderator of the encounter, said the event had been an extraordinary one that brought together not only some of the best analysts and correspondents writing today on the Middle East, but also some of the key players in the peace process in the Middle East. It had been a rewarding experience.

Mr. ROED-LARSEN said that the encounter had reflected the patterns of convergence and divide which existed in the Middle East. While everybody wanted peace, and agreed that peace should be based on resolutions 242 and 338, there was a divide on how to get to peace and two schools of thoughts: the utopian one was looking at a mighty United Nations playing a leading role, while the realist one was seeing the world as it was, often ugly. As stated before, it was necessary to build a coalition. Only one country, the United States, was capable of leading the peace effort, both Mr. Arafat and Mr. Sharon agreed.

Mr. Roed-Larsen stressed that what was needed was a United States-led coalition, including the Secretary-General, the European Union and the Russian Federation, as well as Egypt and Jordan. Such a coalition would take the peace process forward. The United Nations could play a major role in terms of Jerusalem, security, borders issues and refugees, but trust in the United Nations had to be built. The Mitchell report had to be implemented in its entirety with timelines. There was a need for a third party in terms of the implementation. What was important at this point was to restore mutual confidence. Mr. Roed-Larsen concluded that the dialogue today had given him hope. What was needed now was a leap of faith by the leaders of both sides.

THÉRÈSE GASTAUT, Director of the Public Affairs Division of DPI, at the request of Ambassador Ibra Deguene Ka, Chairman of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, read his closing remarks. Ambassador Ka stated that he was confident that the exchange of views had provided for a better understanding of the problems that beset the quest for peace in the region. He stated that the media encounter was a tangible and welcome effort on the part of DPI to promote and nurture dialogue on this critical issue. In his capacity as Chairman of the Committee, he expressed his deep gratitude to the DPI for organizing this important meeting.

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