Minister Cowen on the Middle East Peace Process, Joint Foreign Affairs Committee
Chair, Members of the Committee,
I am very pleased to have this opportunity to discuss the progress of the Middle East Peace Process with you today and to bring the Committee up to date on developments. It has been some time since I have had the opportunity to speak at any length in this Committee about this long-running conflict, in which the people of Ireland have always taken a profoundly sympathetic interest.
The conflict in Iraq and its repercussions have, to some extent, taken the spotlight off the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the international effort to resolve it. It is important that this should not be allowed to remain the case. Indeed, in my view, the recent events in Iraq make it all the more necessary for the international community to focus on the situation in the Occupied Territories and the associated conflicts between Israel and Syria and Lebanon.
First, I have to say that the situation on the ground in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel remains a major cause for concern. Killings and injuries are continuing on an almost daily basis. Any sense of urgency about the peace process seems completely absent. The reports that I receive almost daily from our diplomats in Tel Aviv and Ramallah and from our other Embassies in the region make sombre reading.
The Israeli government is continuing its provocative project to build its so-called “Security Fence” on illegally confiscated Palestinian land. This will have the impact of effectively annexing further Palestinian territory, dividing Palestinian communities and separating villages from their farmland and water supplies. The value of this fence to Israel is extremely questionable. It offers doubtful security to Israel but will stand as an impediment to the peace process, an affront to the dignity of the Palestinians and as question mark against Israel's intentions. The European Union has made these points in a friendly fashion to the Israeli Government. I would urge the Israeli government to heed the warnings of their friends in Europe and elsewhere and to reconsider this ill-advised project.
The humanitarian situation of the Palestinian population remains grim. The economy is in ruins and the closures and restrictions on movement make normal working life impossible for whole communities. Ireland Aid continues its programme of assistance in difficult circumstances. This year some €6 million will be allocated in development, humanitarian and emergency assistance to the Palestinians. The European Commission will also continue its budgetary support to the Palestinian Authority, which currently runs at almost €10 million per month, for some time.
Politically there have been significant developments, some of them positive. On Saturday, Palestinian Prime Minister designate, Mahmoud Abbas, presented his Cabinet nominees to President Arafat. I understand that the nominations will be presented to the Palestinian Legislative Council for approval within the next few days and that there should be a new functioning Palestinian Cabinet within a week or so. I wish Prime Minister Abbas well in the difficult task which lies ahead of him, and I have urged our European Union partners and other international actors to show him the support, which he will need to establish his authority.
President Bush indicated in mid March that as soon as a Palestinian Cabinet was approved and operational, he expected the Quartet Roadmap to be presented to the parties. This document, which has been developed by the Quartet of representatives of the US, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, sets out the steps which must be taken over a three-year period to ensure the emergence of a viable Palestinian State. The aim is for this Palestinian State to live in peace and security within internationally recognised borders alongside a peaceful and secure Israel.
The Roadmap is not a simple document, but then neither are the problems, which it seeks to address. It makes demands of both Israelis and Palestinians. It sets measurable benchmarks and definite time frames. Above all, it provides for progress to be monitored and assessed by international observers. The text of the Roadmap was agreed at the end of last year, but for a variety of reasons the US Government were reluctant to publish it during the first three months of this year. However, there appears to be a determination in Washington that, following the overthrow of the Iraqi regime, progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a political and moral necessity if stability, social and political progress are ever to come to the Middle East.
There has been some public speculation on whether the Roadmap is not open for further discussion or negotiation before publication. The Government of Israel has suggested that it would like changes in the text but the Quartet have made it clear that the Roadmap stands as agreed in Washington last December and that negotiations are a matter for the parties in the course of implementation. The formal adoption and publication of the Roadmap will represent a major challenge to the parties. Sacrifices will be necessary from both sides and the statesmanship of both sides will be severely tested.
Ireland has been a consistent supporter of the work of the Quartet and I would see the Roadmap as offering the best prospect for a comprehensive, peaceful solution to the conflict currently available. The Taoiseach urged on President Bush the necessity to proceed with the Roadmap during their meetings in Washington on 13 March. As it happened, the President announced his intention to proceed with publication the following day.
Ireland will continue to support the work of the Quartet and the difficult process of implementation over the period of the ending of the conflict. We have, of course, our own experience of the difficult process of building peace in this Island. While no direct parallels can be drawn between the situation in the Middle East and the situation in Northern Ireland, there are lessons to be learnt and we are happy to make our experience available to the parties and to the international team monitoring implementation of the Roadmap.
I can tell the Committee that work on the mechanisms necessary for the implementation of the Roadmap has made considerable progress and as soon as the Roadmap has been presented to the parties it will be possible to proceed directly to implementation. The question of Ireland's participation in any implementation mechanism has not yet been decided as we are awaiting an indication of the way in which resources will be sought from the four Quartet participants.
The European Union as a whole remains committed to the Middle East Peace Process. It is considered by Foreign Ministers at practically every meeting, most recently at the Council in Luxembourg yesterday. The High Representative, Javier Solana, and his staff are fully engaged in the search for peace and maintain constant channels both to the parties and to the other international actors who have a role to play.
At its meeting on 21 March the European Council concluded that the Iraq crisis made it all the more imperative that the other problems of the region be tackled and resolved. The Heads of State and Government repeated their support for a two State solution on the basis of the 1967 borders. They called for the immediate publication and implementation of the Roadmap and for parallel progress in the security, political and economic fields. Tomorrow, in Athens, EU Heads of State and Government will discuss the Middle East Peace Process with the Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan. They will consider the means to give effect to the Roadmap and the most effective proposals for implementation.
The States of the Middle East are also active in the peace process. Since the Arab League Summit in Beirut in March 2002, the Arab States have been clear about their commitment to a peace settlement based on the 1967 borders and complete normalisation of relations between the Arab States and Israel. This initiative, which came from Saudi Arabia, was an important clarification and will enable the Arab League and its Member States to play a major role in the establishment of peace in the region.
The Arab League also has a potentially important role to play in resolving the other outstanding conflicts between Israel and its neighbours Syria and Lebanon. No long-term settlement in the region will be complete until there is also agreement between Israel on the one hand and Syria and Lebanon on the other. We know from the experience of our own Defence Forces in those countries the debilitating effect of these conflicts. We are conscious of the way in which they have impeded the social and political development of these countries over the past thirty or forty years.
Happily the Roadmap takes the necessity for these questions to be resolved into account. However, it will be necessary for Syria and Lebanon to show willingness to move as well. They must also be prepared to make the commitment to peaceful co-existence and to move on from past wrongs to an era of regional peace and development. Difficult security and territorial issues will have to be resolved. Nonetheless, I am confident that, if real progress towards a Palestinian State is discernible, the necessary goodwill and political courage will be forthcoming.
I might bring my remarks to a close, Mr. Chairman, by summing up the state of the Middle East Peace Process as I see it. As on so many previous occasions when I have addressed this question in the House or in committee, the situation on the ground is deeply worrying. Communities on both sides live in fear; there is a sense of mutual hostility, almost to the point of dehumanisation. There has been a lack of political will towards peace and a failure to appreciate the necessary sacrifices and compromises that will have to be made by all sides.
At the same time, there is at some level a dim understanding of the shape, which the peace process has to take. There is an acceptance that two states are going to have to live side by side in peace and within secure internationally recognised borders. There are the beginnings of an acceptance that painful sacrifices will have to be made by both sides.
The Quartet Roadmap embodies all of the essential elements for the peace towards which the Israelis and Palestinians are so painfully groping. Indeed, any plan, which left out any of those essential elements, would have little chance of success. There is now, perhaps for the first time in years, an international consensus around a peace plan and perhaps, just perhaps, the international will to see the plan through.
The next few months will be absolutely crucial, not just for Israelis and Palestinians but for all of the peoples and States of the region. Everyone involved must be prepared to move with speed and resolution to ensure that this opportunity is not missed. Israel must end its illegal settlement activity and accept the need to withdraw its colonies from the Occupied Territories. It must recognise that its long-term peace and security rests in the establishment of a viable and independent Palestine, based on the 1967 borders. Palestinians must accept that Israel has the right to exist, in peace, as a Jewish State, within recognised borders. The Arab and Moslem world must allow Palestinians the space to make the necessary compromises and must cease all support for terrorist activities. The United States, Europe and others must encourage and facilitate their friends to do whatever is necessary to achieve a just and lasting peace. Violence must end. But the peace process must not be made hostage to those who would seek to use violence to destroy it.
None of us can foresee the shape of the Middle East five years from now, but I can say that the peace plan now on offer, bitter as its consequences will be for many, is the best that is likely to emerge and that Ireland will support it, offer our experiences to those who can benefit, and continue our own modest but determined efforts in the humanitarian, peace keeping and diplomatic fields.