Minister Cowen's Statement to Seanad Eireann on Israel / Palestine (Part I)
A Chathaoirleach, Senators,
I welcome this opportunity to inform this House about our Presidency programme and action in relation to the Middle East peace process. There have been few positive developments in the region in recent months and I have to be frank and say that prospects for progress in the near term are not overly encouraging. Nonetheless, I attach great importance to this issue, and as Presidency we shall play an active role in international peace efforts, in particular as a member of the international Quartet of the EU, Russia, the US and UN.
We have conducted an intensive round of meetings in the last few weeks. Beginning in December, the Director General of Israel's Foreign Ministry visited Dublin, where he had intensive discussions with me and with officials of my Department. The Palestinian Foreign Minister, Nabil Shaath, came to Dublin on 9 January for meetings with the Taoiseach and myself. I then visited Israel on 15-16 January, where I had discussions with President Katsav, Prime Minister Sharon, Foreign Minister Shalom, and the Leader of the Opposition, Shimon Peres. I subsequently travelled to Egypt where, on 17 January, I met President Mubarak, Foreign Minister Maher and the Secretary-General of the Arab League, Amre Moussa. On Monday of this week, senior officials of my Department had meetings in the Occupied Palestinian Territories with President Arafat, Prime Minister Qurei and Foreign Minister Shaath. Prime Minister Qurei is due to visit Dublin next Monday to meet the Taoiseach and myself.
Our aim has been to urge an end to violence and to explore with the parties possible means for breaking the current deadlock on the implementation of the Road Map agreed by the Quartet and endorsed by the UN Security Council in Resolution 1515. I have made considerable efforts to build confidence in the Presidency and the European Union as viable interlocutors. I gave particular emphasis to this matter in a speech which I delivered at Tel Aviv University on 15 January, the text of which is available on my Department's website
The Roadmap contains a series of steps to be taken by both parties with a view to building confidence and security, leading eventually to a Palestinian State. It is time bound and was intended to be implemented over two years. It sets measurable objectives for both sides and provides for the development of international monitoring mechanisms. Unfortunately, neither side has fulfilled their obligations under the Roadmap. Either for political or practical reasons, the steps envisaged in the first phase of the Roadmap have not been taken.
During my recent visit to Israel and Egypt, and in my discussions with the Palestinian Foreign Minister here in Dublin, I advanced the idea that perhaps, in the first instance, smaller steps should be taken. I suggested that if the significant initial steps envisaged by the Roadmap are too difficult at this time, then these might be broken down or implemented in phases. These small steps could begin to address the concerns of Israelis about security and action against terrorism, while relieving the suffering which Palestinians face in almost every aspect of their daily lives. They might also revive the contacts at political and security level which are necessary if progress is to be made. This idea was quite well received by the Palestinian side and found some interest with the Israeli leaders whom I met. It also attracted support during my discussions with the President and Foreign Minister of Egypt as well as the Secretary General of the Arab League.
I hope to develop these ideas in discussions with Prime Minister Qurei, during his visit to Dublin next Monday. We shall also discuss other developments in the region, including the prospects for a resumption of high level contact between the Israeli and Palestinian sides. Following on from our contacts with the parties, the Taoiseach has this morning issued a statement calling, on behalf of the European Union, for the Palestinian and Israeli Prime Ministers to meet as soon as possible as a first step in the resumption of meaningful dialogue between the two parties. I hope that such contact might be possible within the coming days.
Prior to my most recent visit to the region, I had contacts with US Secretary of State Powell and representatives of the other members of the Quartet, including UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan.. I outlined the purpose of my visit and our thinking on ways of bringing forward the peace process. To Secretary Powell, I emphasised the need for US engagement and the necessity for this engagement to be visible to the parties. The Secretary-General of my Department also had talks with senior US officials in Washington last week. I am pleased to note that two high level US envoys visited Israel last week and met with Israeli and Palestinian representatives to review possibilities for action.
I have also had bilateral discussions on the Middle East in recent days with a number of EU colleagues, including the Foreign Ministers of France, Germany, Spain, UK and Netherlands. They, like most of my European colleagues, strongly support Presidency efforts to assert Europe's role in efforts to bring peace to the eastern Mediterranean.
A major obstacle to progress in the peace process is the construction by Israel of a separation barrier which extends deep into the Palestinian Territories. This has been the subject of statements by the European Union and others who have urged Israel to consider the long term consequences of this construction. I need hardly say that the barrier figured prominently in my discussions in Israel two weeks ago and that I found Israeli attitudes regrettably uncompromising.
My officials examined sections of the barrier earlier this week and were deeply disturbed by what they saw. The first thing to say is that it the barrier is in fact a wall, at least in those sections which cut through urban areas. The wall is extremely high and passes within feet of houses occupied by Palestinian families. The wall also encloses considerable tracts of agricultural and barren land. The Israeli authorities have assured me that the barrier is being constructed for security purposes only and is reversible. One can only hope that this is so. However, seen from the Palestinian side, it looks like an attempt to unilaterally re-draw the 1967 borders.
Of course, nobody could ultimately object to the building of a separation barrier on Israeli territory, or even one which followed the Green Line. What is objectionable about the present wall is that it is largely built on land falling within the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
On 21 October last year, Ireland and our European Union partners co-sponsored a Resolution in the General Assembly of the United Nations which called on Israel to stop and reverse construction of the wall and asked the Secretary General of the United Nations to report on Israeli compliance.
When, at the end of November, the Secretary General reported that there was no evidence of Israeli compliance, the General Assembly adopted a Resolution asking the International Court of Justice to render an advisory opinion on the legal consequences of the construction of a wall in occupied Palestinian Territory. This Resolution was adopted on 8 December last. On that occasion the European Union abstained on the vote. The decision to abstain was taken after intense consultations and was based on the conviction of many Member States that transferring the matter of the Wall to a legal forum would do nothing to advance the political process necessary for peace. Abstention did not in any way suggest a change in European Union's position that the Wall was in contravention of international law.
On receiving the Resolution of the General Assembly, the Court invited Member States of the United Nations to submit statements or information to the Court which might be of assistance in its deliberations. Some Member States of the European Union felt that it would be desirable for a common position to be submitted to the Court. Other states had a strong preference for individual national submissions to the Court.
After considerable discussion, including at the General Affairs and External Relations Council on 26 January, it was agreed that there would be a common EU Submission and that individual Member States might make national submissions based on established European Union positions. The common submission reflected the texts of Presidency statements to the UN General Assembly on 20 October and 8 December. The texts of these statements were annexed to the covering letter.
Essentially, the Union's position is that (a) the building of the wall within the Occupied Palestinian Territories is in contradiction to international law; but that
(b) the General Assembly's request that the ICJ issue an Advisory Opinion will not help the efforts of the two parties to re-launch a political dialogue and is therefore inappropriate. However, contrary to some press reports, the EU has not asked the ICJ to refrain from issuing an Advisory Opinion. There would have been no consensus to adopt such a position.
In addition, the Government authorised me to submit a national statement. This statement, which is fully consistent with the EU common position, sets out the legal basis for Ireland's opinion that the construction of the wall in the Occupied Territories is in violation of international law. In all, ten of the fifteen current Member states of the Union submitted national statements to the Court.
Both statements were transmitted to the Registrar of the International Court of Justice in The Hague last Friday. The written submissions of all interested parties, including the Israelis and Palestinians, have now been received by the Court. It is expected that oral submissions will commence on 23 February and that the Court will deliver its advisory opinion to the General Assembly late this summer.