Address by Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Micheál Martin, T.D., to ICTU Conference on the Middle East, Friday 16 April 2010
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Address by Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Micheál Martin, T.D., to ICTU Conference on the Middle East, Friday 16 April 2010
I would like to extend my thanks to ICTU President David Begg and to the Chair of today’s Conference, David Joyce and Jack O’Connor, for the invitation to address this important conference on the Middle East and to offer you my perspective as Foreign Minister on the current situation in the Middle East.
I know that the theme you are addressing today is the way forward for trade union solidarity in the Middle East. Trade unionists and civil society in general have a tremendously important role to play in trying to bring about political progress on the ground in the Middle East. ICTU has contributed to the high level of public interest which exists in this country on the problems affecting the Middle East, including through their visit and subsequent report on the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories in late 2007. I have been very happy to maintain an active dialogue with ICTU on the Middle East in the two years since I became Foreign Minister.
It is very important to encourage an informed public debate, both here in Ireland in the region itself, about the Middle East Peace Process and the central importance of achieving progress towards a comprehensive settlement, based on a two-State solution. There is little doubt in my view that achieving progress in the Middle East will directly contribute in an immense way to improved global security overall. It is that important an issue.
I know it may be a cliché but building peace is ultimately about bringing people together. That is the invaluable contribution which many civil society groups, trade unionists and other NGOs engaged with this issue, both in the region and around the world, are making. Having recently visited Gaza, I could see for myself the importance of the role of the individual, be it a teacher or a pupil in a UNRWA-run school or a human rights defender in Gaza, in inculcating basic values, such as respect for dialogue and human rights, and in maintaining the ember of hope, no matter how bleak the circumstances. I will return to the issue of Gaza later.
The Middle East Peace process is today, I believe, at a critical juncture. Of course, there have been many such critical junctures before but this current one truly merits the name. For more than a year now, the Obama Administration through the close active engagement and leadership of Secretary of State Clinton and Special Envoy, Senator George Mitchell, have been leading international efforts to bring about a resumption of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
As Foreign Minister, I have expressed the Government’s strong and continuing support for the US efforts. It is absolutely vital that we work to create an environment where both sides feel confident enough to sit down and address the substantive issues which still divide them. That is what the US, EU and others in the international community have been working to achieve in recent months.
The imperative for bringing about a resumption of direct negotiations is that the current situation on the ground is simply not sustainable. The relative calm, in Middle Eastern terms, which has prevailed since the end of the Israeli military offensive in Gaza should not fool us. The reality is that the threat of renewed violence and even of a third Intifada is, I fear, a very real one.
At this critical moment, it has become more crucial than ever that the words of those most engaged by the problem are matched by deeds.
Prime Minister Netanyahu made clear, in a speech at Bar-Ilan University last June, that he is prepared to work to achieve a negotiated, two-State solution. I welcome this Declaration. However, it is critically important that the Israeli Government should ensure all its actions and policies are shaped towards supporting this intention.
This is obviously most important in relation to settlements and to the current situation in East Jerusalem. Creating new facts on the ground, as Israel has repeatedly done in recent months, particularly in East Jerusalem through the expansion of settlements and the reprehensible policy of demolition and forced eviction of Palestinian families from their homes, has only succeeded in greatly complicating the search for peace. Such actions have alienated moderate Palestinian opinion and eroded confidence that the negotiation process can satisfy legitimate Palestinian aspirations.
The reality, of course, is that the status quo does not serve anyone’s interests, and least of all Israel’s. The only alternative to a viable two-state solution is either a one-state solution or a continuation of the present situation where the basis for a viable and contiguous Palestinian state is being gradually eroded.
The Israeli Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, has himself commented recently that, in the absence of progress towards a viable two-State solution, Israel runs the real risk of becoming “either non-Jewish or non-democratic”.
What are therefore most urgently required in the region are confidence-building measures which can help to create an environment in which political progress can be achieved. This obviously must include some form of effective freeze on settlement expansion as well as an end to the type of measures directed against the Palestinian population of East Jerusalem.
We need to see greater movement on ending restrictions in the West Bank. While there has been some reduction in the reduction of checkpoints over the past year, far too many, well over 500, still remain. These are discriminatory and are choking off the prospects for sustained economic growth and activity in the West Bank.
I also hope that the Israeli Government responds to the serious concerns which have been expressed about the new military orders issued in recent days relating to the West Bank and which potentially raise the prospect of widespread arrest and deportation of anyone not in possession of an Israeli-issued permit in the West Bank. Such actions again appear completely counter to the goal of building confidence and trust on all sides.
Most of all, we need to end the completely unjust, unacceptable and counter-productive blockade of Gaza. It was extremely dispiriting, when I visited Gaza in late February, to see the condition to which much of Gaza and its population have been reduced.
As I have already stated on a number of occasions, I regard the current conditions prevailing for the ordinary population of Gaza as inhumane and utterly unacceptable, in terms of accepted international standards of human rights.
Despite the deprivation which surrounds them, I was nonetheless greatly heartened by what I heard from those ordinary residents of Gaza whom I met on my visit. Their resilience and dignity were deeply impressive.
What was really brought home to me was the crucial role played by education and by the UNRWA-run schools in preserving a sense of self-worth and commitment to values such as dialogue and tolerance. Again, I want to acknowledge publicly here the inspiring work being performed by UNRWA and people like John Ging and Aidan O’Leary in sustaining the commitment of ordinary people in Gaza to respect for human rights and democracy.
Yet, the very real danger spelled out to me by many of those I met in Gaza was that continuation of the blockade will ultimately only result in greater radicalization of opinion, further enrichment of Hamas and those engaged in the tunnelling industry, and the extinguishing of hope for those advocating peace, dialogue and moderation. This should not be allowed to happen.
I would also add that there continues to be need for accountability for what transpired during the Israeli military operations in Gaza during December 2008-January 2009. The Goldstone Report has made a very important contribution to improved understanding of those tragic events. Its recommendations, and particularly its principal one calling on both sides to conduct independent, credible investigations which measure up to international standards, deserve to be taken seriously and acted upon. It was for this reason that Ireland voted for the two UN General Assembly Resolutions adopted on this report in November 2009 and March 2010.
Of course, it is not just for Israel to take confidence-building measures. There must be an end to the completely unjustified, indiscriminate and deadly attacks launched by Hamas and other Palestinian militants against the population of southern Israel. Hamas must also cease the insidious practice of kidnapping. I again call on Hamas to release the young Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, now in his fourth year of captivity in Gaza. I believe that the release of Sergeant Shalit and return to his family would represent an extremely positive contribution to overall efforts to progress the peace process.
The Palestinian Authority, for its part, must continue to work to combat all incitement and, in cooperation with the international community, to build up and strengthen the security forces and institutions of law and order which will operate in the future Palestinian state. Real progress is being made in this regard, through the framework of Prime Minister Fayyad’s two-year Plan, in developing the institutional framework of a future Palestinian state. This is work which the European Union, through its significant financial and capacity-building assistance and through CSDP missions such as EUPOL COPPS and EUBAM Rafah, will continue actively to support.
I also believe that overall efforts to achieve political progress would be greatly facilitated by intensified efforts to achieve Palestinian reconciliation. Divisions within the Palestinian body politic will ultimately have to be addressed and overcome, if we are truly serious about supporting the creation of a viable Palestinian state. Prime Minister Fayyad has delivered some interesting remarks on this issue in recent days and I would encourage similar constructive thinking and mediation efforts, including the tireless work of the Egyptian and German governments and the Arab League, to continue.
The reality, of course, is that all of us engaged with the problems of the Middle East have a pretty clear picture of the goal we are working to achieve. The final status issues that need to be resolved and the parameters of an eventual settlement -- based on Israel and a Palestinian state comprising the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, as separate neighbouring states living in peace and security -- have been evident for quite some number of years now. The challenge, as ever, remains how to get there and how to mobilise the necessary political will.
I have tried to set out above some of the necessary steps for creating a political environment capable of sustaining a genuine negotiation process. It is also evident that the international community must stay engaged and supportive and that there must be active facilitation and leadership by the members of the Quartet, including the EU. It is also clear that any talks process cannot be open-ended but must aim at reaching a settlement within a reasonable time-frame, with the end of 2011 mentioned most frequently in this regard.
Ultimately, the key ingredient required in order to gain any kind of forward momentum in the Middle East Peace Process is political will and a clear commitment to resolve differences with one’s opponents through a political approach. Our own experience here in Ireland has demonstrated clearly how dialogue and accommodation as well as a commitment to the political path represent the most effective means for resolving conflict. This means working to develop relationships and mutual confidence, even with those with whom one may have the most profound political differences.
This is an approach which Ireland itself has always endeavoured to apply in working to promote a peaceful, comprehensive settlement, based on the two-State solution, in the Middle East. It is why I was prepared to travel to meet with President Assad in Syria early last year, at a time when others were continuing to urge caution. Recent events have only reinforced the need to engage with and urge important regional players such as Syria to play a constructive role in relation to the Middle East Peace Process.
Similarly, it is why I passionately believe that we need to continue to work actively with the Israeli Government and people, as Ireland has always done, to persuade them of the benefits to be gained from active engagement in pursuit of a two-State solution. The Government does not agree with or support any form of boycott which would be completely inimical to the frank and honest dialogue we have always pursued with the Israeli Government.
The importance of dialogue, cooperation and working actively with all genuine stakeholders to achieve political progress is one which also characterises the EU’s approach to the Middle East. Again, it is important to reiterate here the very significant contribution, both financially and in practical assistance, which the EU is making to support political and economic development throughout the wider Middle East region.
The most obvious manifestation of this is the European Neighbourhood Policy and the various Association Agreements which operate under its framework. It is important to understand that such Agreements represent the EU’s preferred way of doing business and working to improve relations with its neighbourhood. Virtually every country in the wider Middle East region enjoys the benefits, including trade concessions, of such an Association Agreement.
As regards the human rights provisions contained in Association Agreements, these serve two important functions. First, they signal clearly the importance which the EU attaches to respect for human rights as the basis for its relations with its neighbours. And second, they also provide a means for the EU to raise such issues and ensure they are addressed in any political dialogue that takes place under these Agreements. This is certainly the case in relation to the EU-Israel Association Agreement, where human rights issues are raised as a matter of course in ongoing political dialogue with Israel.
I would argue that the emphasis in considering the conduct of the EU’s relations with the countries of the region, including Israel, might best be placed on ensuring better implementation of the provisions contained in existing Association Agreements. One practical way of doing this would be to ensure, for example, that only goods produced in Israel itself benefit from the tariff waivers provided in the EU-Israel Association Agreement. It is for this reason that I have signalled my support for working with other colleagues in Government to improve the labelling of produce from illegal settlements in the West Bank imported into Ireland. The UK has provided a valuable lead in this regard and it is one which I hope Ireland can follow.
Ultimately, EU-Israeli relations must be viewed through the prism of wider developments in the region. That is why I have consistently argued against moving to upgrade EU-Israel relations until such time as the level of political progress on the ground warrants it. Our relations cannot be divorced from the overall strategic imperative of fashioning a comprehensive peace settlement, based on the two-State solution. The logical corollary of this stance is that substantial progress towards this goal will facilitate much improved and enhanced EU-Israel relations.
I hope that by your deliberations here today in this historic setting – a setting which itself played such an important part in the attainment of Irish sovereignty and independence -- you can succeed in identifying a way forward for trade unionists and all those others interested in pursuing peace in the Middle East. What we are all working to achieve is not just a two-State solution but a 23-state solution which will allow people to live in peace and security in the wider region. As with any complex challenge, it requires us to be patient and deliberate in our peace-making, and creative and constructive in our solutions.
ICTU, as an all-Ireland body, has considerable experience of its own to draw on in considering issues of conflict resolution. We all know that ultimately, it is the politics of persuasion which is best placed to win the day and which must be the path that we pursue.
Thank you very much.
16 April 2010Top