Press Releases

                                                                                                                     17 June 2004

    Civil Society Contributions Keep Hope Alive for Middle East Peace, International Media Seminar Told on Opening Day

    Secretary-General, in Message, Says Civil Society Could Go Where Politicians Might Be Reluctant to Tread, Testing Possibilities for Future Action

    (Received from a UN Information Officer.)

    BEIJING, 16 June -- Amid a lack of tangible progress in the formal implementation of the Road Map, civil society initiatives had kept alive the hope of ordinary people for a durable peace in the Middle East, the International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East heard this morning at its opening session.

    The two-day seminar seeks to stimulate public debate and keep alive the prospect of dialogue between the parties. Twelfth in a series launched by the United Nations Department of Public Information (DPI) since 1991, it is being held in response to General Assembly resolution 58/57, which mandates the Department to organize such discussions and sensitize public opinion, particularly on the question of Palestine.

    Representatives from “both sides of the aisle”, international experts on the Middle East and senior journalists from around the world were expected at the seminar, which had been organized in cooperation with the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

    Opening the seminar by reiterating China’s support for the peace process and urging that the longed-for peace not be a “pipe dream” for the people of the region, China’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Zhang Yesui, said that “violence for violence’s sake” led nowhere. In the face of the unceasing conflict and the failure to fully implement the Road Map, the international community was anxious about the direction of the situation, whose settlement had significant implications for the region and the world, and depended on the concerted efforts of the whole international community.

    He said that the forces for peace in civil society were rising and becoming more involved in regional and international cooperation. For the Middle East, civil society could offer new channels for contacts and exchanges between the parties concerned. Civil society provided aid to relieve the humanitarian plight, and produced ideas to reduce tensions. The international community, aware of civil society’s unique advantage, should explore ways to bring its positive role into play in promoting the peace process.  

    Moderating the discussions, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, Shashi Tharoor, said that unless the violence and its concomitant uncertainty was stemmed and dialogue restored, Israelis might face growing isolation from their neighbours and constant fear of attack, and Palestinians might face a life of continuing military incursions, economic deprivation, frustration and despair.

    He hailed the Road Map as a performance-based and goal-driven peace plan of the Quartet (United States, Russian Federation, the European Union and the United Nations), which had given Israelis and Palestinians a “real chance” to end their long and painful conflict. Since its introduction one year ago, however, developments on the ground had jeopardized the chances of realizing its vision of a two-state solution.

    “Something has evidently gone wrong”, Mr. Tharoor said, referring to the spiral of violence, destruction, horror and human suffering, which was pushing hope further out of reach. That was not just because international expectations had not been met and the international proposals had been sidelined, but because there had been little movement towards meeting the basic expectations of ordinary people on both sides of the divide.

    Absent formal implementation of the Road Map, he noted that civil society initiatives had sprung up. Referring, in particular to the so-called “Geneva Initiatives”, which were no substitute for official negotiations between the Government of Israel and the Palestinian National Authority, civil society had already achieved the critically important goal of stimulating debate on the main issues to be resolved if that conflict was to end.

    Emphasizing that, ultimately, it was people who were the strongest agents for peace in their societies, Mr. Tharoor appealed to the media to transmit the message to the world at large about the need for peace.  

    United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in a statement read in his behalf, said “I know you share my profound distress at the stalled political process, at the fear and bitterness that prevails on both sides, and at the escalation of violence and destruction that we have seen in recent weeks.”

    Mr. Annan added that it was at such bleak moments that civil society was needed to do its part.

    Despite the clarity of the Quartet’s Road Map and its acceptance by both sides, efforts to implement that remained “deeply unsatisfactory”.

    Non-governmental organizations, citizens’ groups and others often had greater freedom to speak and act than governments and other officials. Civil society could even, in extraordinary circumstances, go where politicians might be reluctant to tread, testing the possibilities for future action. Their initiatives, while no substitute for official diplomatic talks, were courageous attempts to break the stalemate.

    Mr. Annan called on civil society on both sides of the conflict to focus particular energy on countering the view that there were no serious partners for peace on either side. To the contrary, polls, media accounts and other reports showed continually solid majorities on each side exhausted by conflict, ready to compromise on even the most sensitive issues, and willing to embark on a new era in their relations. Those voices must not only be heard; those must be targeted at the leadership on both sides, he stressed.

    Reading out a statement on behalf of Terje Roed-Larsen, the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and the Personal Representative of the Secretary-General to the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority, was Khaled Malik, United Nations Resident Coordinator in China. Mr. Roed-Larsen had suddenly been recalled to the region by the Secretary-General. Mr. Roed-Larsen’s aide, Ezzedine Choukri-Fisher, was there to represent him.

    Asserting that the logic of violence had continued to prevail over that of peacemaking, Mr. Roed-Larsen said that, from each side, the fiction that victory over the other side could succeed still prevented them from taking the end decision to move ahead towards a compromise that could put an end to the bloodshed. That there was no freeway to peace was among the lessons of decades of conflict.

    Rather, he continued, that was an unpaved road, full of bumps, traps, moving sands, and all sorts of challenges. Those who were waiting for guarantees of success before moving would wait for a long time. Those who were waiting for the big bang -- an event that would fix it all and bring peace to the people of that tormented land -- would wait even longer. It was incumbent upon everyone to snatch opportunities and to try to enlarge and strengthen them, while struggling with the constraints.

    A message circulated to participants this morning by the Chairman of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People and the Permanent Representative of Senegal to the United Nations, Paul Badji, stated that, as long as the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians continued to fester, the hard work of trying to bring harmony and prosperity to that troubled part of the world could not bear fruit.

    The increasingly desperate situation in the occupied Palestinian territory called for “fresh and vigorous” efforts to resuscitate the political process and bring the parties back to the negotiating table, he said. Over the years, thousands of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), political and university groups, think tanks, trade unions, the media and concerned individuals had been joining in initiatives for a just peace, he said. The media, in particular, had the capacity to sensitize public opinion, making certain that the issue stayed on the front burner pending a fair and just solution.

    Also in opening remarks, the Chairman of the United Nations Association of China and former United Nations Under-Secretary-General for General Assembly Affairs (1997 - 2001), Jin Yongjian, said that the road to peace in the Middle East had been difficult and tortuous, but efforts to achieve that aim had never ceased. The issue of Palestine was at the heart of the matter, and the situation in Iraq should not detract from efforts to settle the question of Palestine.

    He said that a comprehensive, just and durable peace must settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and restore the Palestinians’ national and legal rights, including establishment of a Palestinian State, without which the Middle East would not see peace or tranquillity. The key to solving the question was in the hands of Palestine and Israel, but they required the help of a courageous and determined international community, as well as the continued vibrant engagement of civil society.

    Detailed Summary of Statement of Under-Secretary-General

    Asserting that some of the previous 11 seminars had taken place in times of hope and others held against a backdrop of less hopeful times, Mr. Tharoor said that perhaps today’s meeting fell into the latter category. Recent events in the Middle East had caused tremendous uncertainty about how the path to peace and stability in the region would be found. The death toll since September 2000 had now reached some 4,000, and thousands more had been wounded. Against that backdrop, recent polls indicated clearly that roughly 76 per cent of Israelis and Palestinians favoured a two-state solution.

    Absent formal implementation of the Road Map, he noted that civil society initiatives had sprung up. He referred particularly to the Geneva Accords, whose signatories were Yasser Abed Rabbo, present at the seminar, and Yossi Beilin, who had hoped to attend but had been unable to do so. Another key member of the Geneva Initiative Public Council in Israel and a member of the Knesset, Ophir Pines-Paz, was to have been there but at the last moment was unable to attend due to an urgent domestic political situation. He would be represented by Shaul Arieli, a retired Israeli colonel. Another notable civil society initiative had been the Ayalon-Nusseibeh statement of principles.

    Elaborating, he explained that the Geneva Initiative, for example, had tackled head on the thorny issues to be taken up in the final status negotiations. That had presented the Israeli and Palestinian publics with a picture of how the end game -- the final comprehensive peace agreement -- might look, and it addressed, among other things, the final status issues of the right of return for Palestinian refugees, the question of borders, and the status of Jerusalem.

    The objective in organizing the annual international media seminars was to sensitize people, the world over, about the question of Palestine, and to give support, to the greatest extent possible, to the dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. The target audience was the media and the hope was that journalists and reporters would draw from the discussions a broad message, which could be transmitted worldwide about the need for a just and durable Middle East peace.

    Detailed Summary of Statement of Special Coordinator for Middle East

    On behalf of Mr. Roed-Larsen, Mr. Malik said that the situation on the ground had deteriorated since the last seminar. The way of peace, however, was uphill and against all odds, and there was no alternative. “If we do not act, things will get worse”, he added. Some people thought the situation had reached such a low point that it could not deteriorate further. It could. Waiting was not an option.

    He said that others had given up, arguing that what remained in the realm of possibility was too little too late. Those people wanted to abandon the process that started in Madrid, passing by Oslo and up to the Road Map. All of those were interim solutions, they argued. Some would even call for abandoning the two-state solution altogether. He cautioned against those arguments. The two-state solution, despite all its pitfalls, was the only solution; that was the only way to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, leading to the emergence of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state.

    Given the complexities of the conflict, and its history, it was inconceivable that the final status agreement could replace interim measures, a gradual approach, or skip them, he said. Both were actually needed, and that was the strength of the Road Map. That plan combined both elements of gradualism and “big-bangism”. It set out concrete and parallel steps for both parties to take, and it defined the end goal in a way that should ensure both parties that their basic demands and rights were respected. Yet, both parties had failed to implement their obligations under the Road Map.

    In the midst of the stalemate, he noted that the Israeli Prime Minister had declared his readiness to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip, evacuate all Israeli settlements there and others in the West Bank. The international community, led by the Quartet, had welcomed that declaration and saw it as a chance to revive the peace process. But, if that should happen, each side had to do its part.

    On the Israeli side, he said, the initiative must lead to a full and complete withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, transfer of authority and control to the Palestinians, and, therefore, be recognized as an end to the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip. That had to be accompanied by similar measures in the West Bank and should not constitute a substitute for Israeli compliance with other obligations related to settlement expansion, construction of the barrier, or its other obligations under international humanitarian law.

    Similarly, he said, the Palestinian Authority had a major role to play, not only by establishing security control in the areas vacated but by taking action that would give Palestinians hope again and make the withdrawal from Gaza an opportunity and commitment to optimism, rather than an additional problem. Revitalizing, reorganizing and reforming the Palestinian Authority was not only a Quartet request, but a demand of the Palestinian people themselves, who had expressed that through their elected representatives, civil society, and it was felt by their leaders. The responsiveness and preparedness of the Palestinian Authority in that was vital, he said.

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