20 March 2003

Middle East Coordinator Tells Security Council "Window of Opportunity" Exists to Get Back to Negotiating Table, Out of Abyss of Suffering

NEW YORK, 19 March (UN Headquarters) -- "As we move towards war in one part of the region, I trust we will not miss the opportunity to move towards peace in the other", Special Coordinator for the Middle East Terje Roed-Larsen told the Security Council this afternoon, as he briefed on the latest developments in the region.

Mr. Roed-Larsen said that, for the first time in two and a half years, he saw a small window of opportunity to get back to the table and out of the abyss of terrorism, violence, economic misery and general suffering. Three critical decisions were required, some of which were on their way to being realized. The first was the Palestinian step of appointing a credible and empowered Prime Minister. The international step had been the decision by the United States to join the Quartet partners -- Russian Federation, the European Union and the United Nations -- in agreeing to present the "Road Map" to the parties and call for its implementation.

The third and equally important step, he continued, was the Israeli Government's return to the negotiating table. It had already reaffirmed its commitment to the two-State solution and had expressed willingness to go back to the table to seek a peaceful solution based on those goals.

"We have an historic opportunity to establish a vigorous and determined front of peace when elsewhere in the region we are at the brink of war", he said. That front of peace could be a source of long-term stability in the region. That required dedicated attention and action from all. Without that, the opportunity would be lost.

This month, he noted, marked two and a half years of crisis in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- two and a half years of mourning and insecurity, of political stalemate and economic ruin. Since the last briefing to the Council, on 13 February, 162 people had lost their lives -- 135 Palestinians and 27 Israelis. That raised the total death toll since September 2000 to 2,502 Palestinians and 724 Israelis. The Palestinian Authority must do everything in its power to prevent the killing of innocents. He called on the Authority to bring those involved in planning attacks to justice, and called on the groups responsible to end their use of terror once and for all.

During the last month, he continued, Israeli military forces had conducted intensive operations in a number of Palestinian cities and refugee camps throughout the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Those operations caused intolerably high numbers of civilian casualties, particularly in the Gaza Strip, where the Israeli Defense Forces conducted its largest incursions since the start of the crisis. There were disturbing reports that force used by Israel was excessive and, at times, indiscriminate.

As all four members of the Quartet had stressed repeatedly over the course of the crisis, Israel had an absolute obligation under international law to minimize harm to innocent civilians. He called once again on the Israeli Government to take more proactive steps to ensure that its military forces abided scrupulously by those principles, to re-examine their rules of engagement, and to conduct a robust investigation into each and every civilian death caused by Israeli military activity. Like every State, Israel had the right to self-defence. However, that right had to be exercised with caution and using reasonable means.

The ongoing physical insecurity so acutely felt by Palestinians and Israelis alike was also creating serious economic insecurity, he continued. A massive infusion of foreign assistance had helped to prevent a total collapse of the Palestinian economy. The World Bank and his office had presented its latest detailed assessments of Palestinian economic life. The findings were alarming. In just 27 months, closure and other movement restrictions reduced Palestinian gross national income by approximately $5.4 billion -- an entire year's worth of income.

He emphasized that international aid could not alone respond adequately to the problems. Its continuation was critical to avoid a total collapse. Even if annual donor aid were to double from the current $1 billion, it would only have a marginal effect on alleviating poverty rates. If the current Israeli security regime remained, the Palestinian humanitarian situation would continue to deteriorate at alarming speed. The only way out of the crisis was a negotiated political solution.

Returning to the key decisions the key actors must take, he believed that the Palestinian Authority's progress in implementing reforms, particularly the establishment of a credible and empowered office of the Prime Minister, provided an opportunity to begin rebuilding a peaceful partnership of negotiations. Yesterday, after a near-unanimous decision by the Palestinian Legislative Council, President Arafat approved a bill of amendments to the Palestinian Authority Basic Law that created the post of Prime Minister and defined his powers.

The amendments gave the Prime Minister a number of powers currently held by the Authority's President, including appointing or removing cabinet ministers and other senior officials. President Arafat nominated Mahmoud Abbas -- Abu Mazen -- to the post of Prime Minister. Abu Mazen, a credible and well-respected leader, now had up to five weeks to present a new government to the Palestinian Legislative Council for approval. Hopefully, his government would be in place long before that. President Arafat, the Palestinian leadership, and the Palestinian Legislative Council deserved to be commended for that courageous and visionary step, and for the other reforms that they had undertaken with full transparency and in close cooperation and coordination with the international community and the Quartet.

The Palestinian Authority had started taking its important decisions to restart negotiations, he said. Now, it was the turn of both Israel and the international community. Quite simply, Israel and the Palestinian Authority must return to the table in a negotiating framework with the Quartet Road Map as its starting point. Israel must also look at ways to ease the massive burden on the Palestinian civilian population in the West Bank and Gaza.

As members of the Council were aware, he noted that Prime Minister Sharon's Government was sworn in on 27 February. The Prime Minister's new coalition brought together the Likud, Shinui, National Union, and National Religious parties. No one underestimated the challenges facing Israel. Terrorism was still murdering innocent men, women and children in Israel's streets. Against the backdrop of violence and instability, the Israeli economy was in distress, with rising unemployment and increasing social problems -- particularly for the poor.

He said he commended the Prime Minister for standing by his stated commitment to the vision of two States, Israel and Palestine, living side-by-side in peace and security. It was towards achieving that vision that the international community must now turn. Recent conversations with senior Israeli interlocutors clearly showed that there was now a will to go back to the table. With war in Iraq ever more likely -- and perhaps almost here -- it was imperative that the Council members demonstrate to the peoples of the region and the world that their ultimate goal in the Middle East was peace.

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the United Nations must not be blind to, nor underestimate, the challenges that lay ahead, particularly on the security front, he said. But, "a door has opened, and we must now walk through it". In a meeting of the Quartet last September, a key guiding principle had been the Secretary-General's conceptual distinction between parallelism and sequentialism. No long was it possible to move through a process based on the latter. Progress should be pursued across the board and in parallel on all issues: security; economic; and political. No ceasefire could take hold without also simultaneously addressing political progress and the economic suffering.

Recalling that the Road Map set out reciprocal obligations for Israelis and Palestinians that must be implemented in parallel, he said certain ones required immediate action on both sides. The Palestinian Authority must not only declare an unequivocal end to violence and terrorism, but also must undertake visible efforts on the ground to prevent violent attacks on Israelis anywhere. At the same time, the Government of Israel must end actions undermining trust, such as proactive security operations, attacks on civilians, confiscation and demolition of Palestinian homes and property, and other measures specified in the Tenet plan. Israel must also immediately dismantle settlement outposts erected since March 2001 and freeze all settlement activity, including natural growth.

Highlighting a second new and critical feature of that Road Map as clearly defining the final destination, he said that the final negotiated settlement would result in the emergence of an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian state. Because only a comprehensive peace could bring stability, security and prosperity to the region, the other tracks of the Middle East peace process would be revived. Despite the distrust between the two sides, he was confident that there was now a mutual recognition of the many imperatives that compelled them to embrace a peace process once again.

He said he strongly believed that it was in their mutual self-interest never to lose sight of the need to forge a common vision of the future. The Road Map defined that vision, and the steps needed to achieve it. Surely, many details still needed to be worked out, but it was for the parties to move beyond entrenched positions and to take concrete actions to achieve peace. The Palestinians had accepted the Road Map without reservations. Faced with that extraordinary opportunity to put an end to the misery and insecurity of the last two years, he trusted that the Government of Israel would shortly do the same.

The meeting, which began at 3:32 p.m., adjourned at 4:17 p.m.

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