15 December 2003


NEW YORK, 12 December (UN Headquarters) -- Despite a lack of diplomatic progress in the Middle East peace process, recent months had been characterized by relative quiet on the ground, offering a narrow window of opportunity to put the peace process back on track, Terje Roed-Larsen told the Security Council this morning, during the monthly open briefing provided on the situation there.

Mr. Roed-Larsen, Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and Special Representative of the Secretary-General to the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority, said there were a number of factors behind the opening of that window, such as a new Palestinian government led by Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei, who had expressed a strong willingness to resume talks with Israeli authorities.  Noting that Mr. Qurei had been a consistent and forceful critic of Palestinian terrorist attacks, he expected him to take steps to deal with violent groups.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had also made clear his desire to meet his Palestinian counterpart, he added.  He expected Mr. Sharon’s Government to act in ways that supported the peace process on such issues as the barrier, settlement expansion and military actions that affected Palestinian civilians.

He applauded the Government of Egypt for its tireless efforts to secure a ceasefire by working with the Palestinian Authority and a variety of Palestinian groups.  Civil society initiatives such as the Geneva Accord and the Peoples’ Voice Initiative had been widely lauded.  A recent Israeli poll had indicated

75 per cent Jewish Israeli support for holding negotiations for peace with the Palestinians, and 60 per cent agreed with evacuation of Gaza and remote West Bank settlements.  Although civil initiatives did not substitute for official negotiations, they showed that Israelis and Palestinians could work together to constructively bridge their differences.  Another positive development was the Council’s endorsement of the “Road Map” through resolution 1515 (2003).

The current situation remained fragile, Mr. Roed-Larsen said, with four possibilities as to where it might lead.  If real negotiations restarted, but failed, the risks were grave, as both sides would find it extremely difficult to re-engage.  Unilateral withdrawal from parts of the occupied Palestinian territory, as some Israelis had recently proposed, could be perceived by some that only force, violence and terror could create change.  Others might think that a partial unilateral withdrawal would be enough to settle the issue once and for all.  Withdrawal from Lebanon, cited as a precedent, had not been unilateral, but had been carried out under Council supervision, showing that international support could effectively facilitate Middle East peace efforts.

An “absolutist approach”, based on the civil society initiatives, advocated an immediate and comprehensive resolution of the conflict, he said, but he believed that even their framers realized that quick implementation was not possible, given the current political climate.  That left only one viable route -- a step-by-step approach.  In other words, bilateral negotiations based on the Road Map and facilitated by the international community.  To that end, he said he had met with fellow Quartet envoys in Rome, Italy, after the high-level donor meeting there.

“The issue today is how to spark the process”, he said.  To do so each of the parties would need to address core concerns of the other side, which could roughly be defined as territory and terror.  For Israelis, the closure system in the occupied Palestinian territory was a catch-22.  They felt that if closures were eased, the potential for terrorist attacks rose.  But if closure persisted, the living conditions of the Palestinians would only worsen.  Israelis needed to know that if they entered a process, they would find true security and recognition at the end, and that they were not simply capitulating to terror attacks.

For Palestinians, he continued, the crisis was not only about hardship, but was a struggle for their identity and national aspirations.  They needed to know that if they entered a process, it had the end of occupation and a viable, independent and sovereign State as an end goal, and that they were not capitulating to Israeli security measures.

The donor community also faced a catch-22, as, through some eyes, the $1 billion they provided annually helped subsidize an Israeli occupation.  The donor community needed to know that, as they continued to provide support, the parties would engage in a peace process that would pave the way to a full, just and lasting peace.  Core issues and dilemmas must be recognized and accepted as a reality by both parties and the international community, and they must be addressed in parallel, not sequentially or with preconditions, he said.

Since the last briefing, 27 people had lost their lives to the conflict -- 24 Palestinians and three Israelis, he continued.  It was a sign of the extent of the violence that had consumed Israelis and Palestinians that that death toll reflected a relatively quiet period.  Fortunately, due in part to attempts thwarted by Israeli security forces, there had not been a completed suicide bombing since 4 October.  Israel’s legitimate defence of its citizens must not contravene its duty as an occupying Power to protect the lives and safety of Palestinian civilians.  Israeli military operations in populated areas too frequently resulted in the deaths and injury of non-combatant Palestinian men, women and children.

He stressed that both parties must do everything possible to halt “this senseless loss of life”.  The bloody alternative to peace would be only more additions to the death toll since September 2000:  2,969 Palestinians and 863 Israelis.  Hopefully, he would soon be able to provide a briefing that did not need to update those numbers.

The presence this week in Rome by high-level Palestinian and Israeli delegations at the donors meeting was the most powerful expression yet that both parties had a renewed desire to engage, he said.  Among the key indicators were, as follows:  between 2000 and 2002, Palestinian economic losses amounted to an estimated $5.4 billion, or one year’s worth of total income for the Palestinian economy; real gross domestic product (GDP) declined some 33 per cent between 1999 and 2002; total investment fell from $1.45 billion to $150 million in the same period; and approximately 2.5 million Palestinians were living under the poverty line, or about 60 per cent of the total population.

He reported that the donor meeting had produced new proposals, including a possible new performance-based trust fund to help alleviate the estimated $650 million shortfall in the budget of the Palestinian Authority and a proposed new tripartite framework for the donors, the Authority and the Government of Israel to work together in a true spirit of cooperation.  Plans for a meeting on Monday within the new tripartite framework had been confirmed.  The donors reiterated their commitment to helping the Palestinian people, but they also voiced serious concerns.

For example, the humanitarian crisis had forced donors to redirect funding from development to emergency relief, which was often hampered, in turn, by Israeli security actions, he said.  That was leading to increased frustration among many donors and aid agencies.  Many donors would require a renewed peace process, in order to sustain their levels of support.  Also, humanitarian and other concerns were exacerbated by the continuing construction of the barrier in the West Bank.

In the Secretary-General’s recent report to the General Assembly on the question of the barrier, he had stated, “In the midst of the Road Map process, when each party should be making good faith confidence-building gestures, the barrier’s construction in the West Bank cannot, in this regard, be seen as anything but a deeply counterproductive act.”  He concluded that, due to its continued building of the barrier, Israel was “not in compliance” with the Assembly’s demand that it halt and reverse construction.

He recalled that, in the last briefing to the Council, Under-Secretary-General Kieran Prendergast had characterized the period under review as a “lost month” in Middle East peacemaking.  During the current reporting period, an opportunity to make progress had arisen.  He fervently hoped that the international community would help them take up that opportunity.  In recent years, there had been too many missed chances and squandered opportunities for peace.  It would be a pity if, in the next briefing, the first of 2004, the Secretariat had cause to cite another lost month.

The meeting started at 10:40 a.m. and adjourned at 11:05 a.m., after which the Council met, in closed consultations to continue consideration of the issue.

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