Press Releases

    PAL/2048
    PI/1722
    12 June 2006

    Media Seminar on Middle East Peace Debates Impact of Regional Changes; Economic, Social Viability in Two-State Solution

    (Received from a UN Information Officer.)

    MOSCOW, 9 June -- The International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East this morning held two panel discussions, on the impact of regional changes on the Middle East peace process and on the economic and social issues facing a two-State solution.

    Shashi Tharoor, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, moderator of the first panel on the impact of regional changes on the Middle East peace process, said few would question that developments in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Iran had an impact on the peace process between Israel and Palestine.  Some opened opportunities for development, while others raised cause for concern.

    Chinmaya Garekhan, former United Nations Special Coordinator in the Palestinian Occupied Territory, said that, given the interdependence of the peace process with neighbouring States, the real question was, could the Palestinian situation be resolved separately?  He thought that it could.

    Yossi Beilin, a Member of the Israeli Knesset, agreed that 11 September 2001, as well as other events, such as the deaths of important leaders, had an effect.  Indeed, President Mubarak might be able to have a greater impact, as he was the only elder statesman left in the region, and he wielded a greater moral authority presently.

    Yuli Vorontsov, the United Nations High-Level Coordinator on Iraq/Kuwait, said that one of the most serious problems in the Middle East was the situation in Iraq, which had taken out one of the active participants in the Middle East peace process, the United States, who now paid less attention to events in Israel and Palestine.

    Mohamad Dahlan, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and former Minister of the Interior, said Israel should ask the United States to play a real role in the peace process.  Some said that the Israeli leadership was only looking out for their own interests.

    Ahmad Tibi, a Member of the Israeli Knesset, said that it was ironic that the United States Administration was trying to radiate democratic values, but they were radiating hostile feelings towards the recent Palestinian elections and towards Al-Jazeera.  In that regard, he was for a greater role for those who wanted to promote the peace process, such as Egypt, Jordan and the Russian Federation.

    A question-and-answer session was held after the panellists gave their opening remarks.

    A second panel discussion, entitled "Economic and Social Viability in a Two-State Solution", was moderated by Alvaro de Soto, United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and Personal Representative to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority.  He said that it was part of the mantra of a two-State solution that a Palestinian State had to be "viable", but with very little elaboration of what viability meant.  In addition, there was a very strong dependence of Palestine on Israel, which had become part of the debate on movement and access.

    Guy Haaze, a member of the International Free Trade Union and President of the Belgium Free Trade Union, said that the question was: should everyone wait for a political solution, before addressing the economic and social problems facing the Palestinian people?  He felt that, at the lower, grass-roots level, something could be done to contribute to the sustainable economic and social development of the Palestinian people, which was in everyone's interests, including Israel's.

    Riyad Al-Hassan, Director of the State Information Service of the Palestinian Authority, said that he believed that the economic and social problems faced by a Palestinian State would turn out to be of disastrous dimensions if Olmert's plan for unilateral separation was followed.  Under that plan, a considerable part of the Palestinian territories would be annexed to Israel, and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians would be isolated behind the western and eastern walls.  That, coupled with the Israeli control over the ports and entryways, left it hard to imagine what the Palestinian way of life would be under such a partition.

    Dani Ben-Abu, Council Member of the Ashdod Municipality, said that the pyramids had been built from the bottom up.  He wanted to keep up the contacts he had made since he came here, with other local government representatives, including the Mayors of Gaza and Ashdod, among others, to build infrastructure and find solutions to their local problems.

    A question-and-answer session was held after the panellists gave their opening remarks.

    When the Seminar met at 2:30 p.m. this afternoon, it would hold its final panel discussions on the challenge of local capacity building and inter-community cooperation and civil society participation and perspectives of grass-root level initiatives.  The two-day Seminar would hold its closing session at the end of the afternoon.

    Panel on "The Impact of Regional Changes on the Middle East Peace Process"

    Statements

    SHASHI THAROOR, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, said that the first panel would examine the impact of regional changes on the Middle East peace process.  Few would question that developments in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Iran had an impact on the peace process between Israel and Palestine.  Some opened opportunities for development, while others raised cause for concern.

    CHINMAYA GAREKHAN, former United Nations Special Coordinator in the Palestinian Occupied Territory, said that he would like to add Iraq to the list just mentioned by Mr. Tharoor.  As everyone knew, since 1947 and onwards, Israel had been part of the regional situation.  The Palestinian issue, by itself, was secondary to the Middle Eastern issue, but had become subsumed by the whole Middle Eastern political scenario.  Gradually, the issue of Palestine had come to the fore and begun to occupy the centre stage, until it had been recognized that it was the core issue, and that the Middle East question could not be resolved without first resolving that issue.

    Taking a longer view, Iraq had been a player, and Iran a very influential one in the region, even in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian question, he said.  As far as the Middle East was concerned, what the events of 11 September 2001 had done was to eliminate the distinction between terrorists and so-called freedom fighters.  Until then, the Arab States had not been forthcoming in condemning terrorism, per se, in terms of the Palestinian question.  But, following 11 September, the use of violence or terrorism for any cause whatsoever was no longer tolerated by the international community.

    As far as Israel was concerned, the elimination of Saddam Hussein's regime had got rid of the greatest threat to that country in its neighbourhood.  For Palestine, they had lost a very strong and powerful patron in Saddam Hussein.  Those changes had obviously had a major effect on the Middle East peace process.  It had been said that what is bad for Iraq is good for the Palestinian cause, the logic being that, since the United States was not able to achieve success in Iraq, and since they must have some positive results in foreign affairs, that would give a boost to negotiations on the Israeli-Palestinian question.  Given the interdependence of the peace process with neighbouring States, he felt that the real question was could the Palestinian situation be resolved separately?  He thought that it could.

    YOSSI BEILIN, Member of the Israeli Knesset and former Foreign Minister, said that the issue of the media in the last 10 years was important to look at.  There had been a media revolution in the Middle East.  With channels like Al-Jazeera and others, the message was transmitted very quickly.  The world was much more transparent, what was happening with the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza had an immediate impact in Jordan for example, intensifying their desire to be involved.  That had changed the situation, speeding up the responses of neighbouring countries.  Egypt's involvement in the last year, for example -- the forces on the border between Egypt and Gaza -- was new.  It purpose was unclear, but it perhaps indicated a fear of spillover by the Egyptians.  Both Jordan and Egypt were more ready to be involved in the process than before, because of the links between what was happening on the ground and their own regimes.

    He said that the peace camps had to take that into consideration and use it in a positive way, so that it would be easier to get back on track in the peace process.  He agreed that 11 September 2001, as well as other events, such as the deaths of important leaders, among them King Hussein, and the fact that President Mubarak was the only elder statesman in the region, had an effect.  Indeed, President Mubarak might be able to have a greater impact, as he presently wielded a greater moral authority.  Also, as a result of the Iraq war, the security question of the Jordan Valley did not play the same role for Israel as before.

    The real question, he said, was how the changes in the region could be used to better the situation.  One could say the changes were good or bad -- the American presence, the death of several leaders, for example -- but those changes should be examined without value judgements and used to move forward.  For example, the media changes meant that transparency was guaranteed, as shown by the fact that Al-Jazeera was criticized from all sides.  That could be put in a bad light; images could be an incitement.  But, the media could also show positive changes, such as meetings with leaders to discuss change.  That opened the possibility for the media to be used for a positive purpose in the peace process, more than ever before.

    YULI VORONTSOV, United Nations High-Level Coordinator on Iraq/Kuwait, said that the situation in the Middle East was not contributing to the peaceful settlement of the Palestinian question.  One of the most serious problems in the Middle East was the situation in Iraq, which had taken out one of the active participants in the Middle East peace process, the United States, who now paid less attention to events in Israel and Palestine.

    Events in Palestine did not contribute to a peaceful settlement, he said.  One example was the economic blockade, which was having a terrible effect on the Palestinian people.  History showed that such blockades did not produce the desired effect; they did not effectively target the Governments policies, but resulted in the suffering of the people.  That had been seen in Iraq before.  The same was true of walls that had been erected all over the world.  The Great Chinese Wall had not protected the Chinese from the forces they wanted to keep out.  It was now nothing more than a beautiful decoration.  The Berlin Wall, also, had only served to anger people.  The fact that Israel was erecting a new wall would not bring about anything positive, it would only anger people.

    Regarding the impact of events in Iran on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, he was concerned, in particular, about the language being used by the United States, regarding bombing and making strikes against that country.  However, it was Israel's reaction he was really concerned about, he said.  He felt that Iran did not pose a threat to the United States, but they did pose a threat to Israel, and he was concerned that Israel would strike Iran.  What would happen in the Middle East if such strikes occurred?  He did not know, but it would not be good.  He hoped that Israel would refrain from such actions.

    MOHAMAD DAHLAN, Member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and former Minister of the Interior, said that he would not like to discuss subjects such as possible strikes against Iran.  That situation was one of pure words, and would only have a negative effect on the peace process.  He preferred to move forward.

    He said he believed that Israel had, for the past six years, had a real desire to attain peace, but had lacked the political will to do so.  That was why Israel was not convinced that the occupation should be stopped; the Israeli people and the political leadership had two different ideas.

    Israel should ask the United States to play a real role in the peace process, he said.  When the United States did play a real role, it had a major effect.  Some said that the Israeli leadership were only looking out for their own interests.  Now, Egypt and Jordan were also looking to attain peace in the region.  Account should also be taken of the crisis in Palestine, as well as the situation in Iraq and Iran.  The Palestine issue was the core of the problem, and the occupation was at the heart of that issue.

    AHMAD TIBI, Member of the Israeli Knesset, said that he would like to start with the new challenge of Prime Minister Olmert, the realignment challenge and its background.  The international community had, more than once, proposed more than one plan, the latest being the Road Map.  But, in Israel, they were witnessing a very interesting process; whatever the Israeli Government proposed was now the only game in town, superseding all other plans and programmes.  The realignment plan had taken over, and no one was talking about the Road Map any longer, as if it had vanished.  Olmert had, long before Sharon, talked about unilateral steps.  Indeed, he had been attacked by Sharon himself when he had first proposed withdrawal from the West Bank.  When there was a bilateral process that implied commitments for both sides, Israel was no longer willing to concede.  That was why President Abbas was being treated as irrelevant.

    With regard to the media, he observed that whatever the Israeli authorities said was taken as truth.  The media was not there to criticize or cover the facts.  The situation in the occupied territories was not made available to the Israeli public.  If Palestinians killed Israelis, those killings were condemned.  But if it was Israelis who killed Palestinians it was a matter of a bombing raid.  If a Palestinian child happened to be killed, it was a mistake.  He could accept a mistake once or twice, but not 732 times.  Then, it became a systematic targeting of civilians, because Palestinian lives were not considered as valuable as others.

    He said that it was ironic that the United States Administration was trying to radiate democratic values, but they were radiating hostile feelings towards the recent Palestinian elections and towards Al-Jazeera.  That showed the moral and political double standards of the American Administration.  In that regard, he was for a greater role for those who wanted to promote the peace process, such as Egypt, Jordan and the Russian Federation. 

    Discussion

    A speaker asked about staged plans.  If a political agreement was reached, how could that be implemented?  A new peace plan was just as likely to reach an impasse at that stage.

    A speaker said that he did not like the direction the discussion was taking.  He felt that it would be better to look at how they could build bridges among those participating.  The idea was not to dwell too much on history and the past, but to look forward.  He believed in evolution, not revolution.

    In response to the question on a staged peace process, Mr. BEILIN said that the question was not whether it could work.  The question was whether there was not a better way.  He was sorry that a staged plan had been the result in Oslo.  He would have preferred to go right to a final settlement.  He thought that the Road Map was a stupid plan, but everyone was committed to it.   As a result, the plan could not be ignored.

    Similarly, he said, Israel could not ignore Hamas. The problem was, how could Israel go through the motions, given the current situation in the Palestinian leadership?  His only answer was that, despite his personal hatred for the Road Map and for a staged solution, he had to think in that way, or he could not see a way forward.  He, therefore, suggested a tailor-made interim measure.

    A speaker said that the military establishment that was the Government of Israel was impossible to negotiate with.  He wondered what would be changed if Israel recognized Hamas.  It would only give them a weak partner.  And, if the killings of children did not stop, what would change?

    Mr. GAREKHAN said he agreed that he did not like the Road Map.  It was different from other staged plans in that it was phased, but the difficulty was that it did not outline who should go first.  He felt that the problem would not be resolved until someone like Mr. Beilin became Prime Minister of Israel.  Still, he was not sure that he agreed with Mr. Beilin that some interim step was necessary at this point.  It could backfire, and be taken as a sign of weakness.  Maybe they should put aside the idea of the peace process for a while, and try and work on the humanitarian situation at this point.

    Mr. TIBI said that he was still waiting for Israeli officials to condemn the killing of Palestinian children.  When there was reciprocity, morally and politically, when dealing with those killings, things could move ahead.  It was possible to change public sentiments, indeed, it was important to educate public opinion, as had happened when the Israeli settlers were removed from the West Bank. 

    Panel on "Economic and Social Viability in a Two-State Solution"

    Statements

    ALVARO DE SOTO, United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and Personal Representative to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority, moderator of the panel discussion "Economic and Social Viability in a Two-State Solution", said that it was part of the mantra of a two-State solution that a Palestinian State had to be "viable", but, with very little elaboration of what that viability meant.  There had to be contiguity, but not much more than that had been defined.  In addition, there was a very strong dependence of Palestine on Israel, which had become part of the debate on movement and access.   In that connection, James Wolfensohn, former representative of the Quartet and former head of the World Bank, had warned of an impending economic collapse and severe social consequences, if the current situation continued. 

    GUY HAAZE, Member of the International Free Trade Union and President of the Belgium Free Trade Union, said that the question was, should everyone wait for a political solution, before addressing the economic and social problems facing the Palestinian people?  He felt that, at the lower, grass-roots level, something could be done to contribute to the sustainable economic and social development of the Palestinian people, which was in everyone's interests, including Israel's.

    What he proposed was that there should be private partnerships at the local level, supported, if possible, by the multilateral system.  The advantage to working with local actors and civil society partnerships was that they were close to the situation on the ground and to the people.  The other advantage of dealing with all the stakeholders was that that allowed them to be held accountable for their situation, he said.

    In conclusion, he said that what he was asking for were horizontal programmes that included all actors, so that, when there was investment in local level programmes, they would be truly of use and interest to the local people themselves.  Of course, information and transparency around such programmes should play a key role in their implementation, and implied the involvement of local actors and the use of impact assessments at that level.  He called for support for civil society initiatives and for local microprojects to be set up.

    RIYAD AL-HASSAN, Director of the State Information Service of the Palestinian Authority, said that he believed that the economic and social problems faced by a Palestinian State would turn out to be of disastrous dimensions, if Olmert's plan for unilateral separation were followed.  Under that plan, a considerable part of the Palestinian territories would be annexed to Israel.  Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians would be isolated behind the western and eastern walls.  That, coupled with the Israeli control over the ports and entryways, left it hard to imagine what the Palestinian way of life would be under such a partition.  Such a plan would have a number of consequences, including, perhaps, the immigration of many Palestinians to other countries, in search of a dignified life.  That was what he suspected the Israeli Government was hoping for.

    DANI BEN-ABU, Council Member of the Ashdod Municipality, said that he felt he had been selected to be here, because he had been a representative of a trade union for a long time, he had been wounded in the Yom Kippur War and, as such, belonged to a group of wounded veterans, and he was involved in the Olympic Committee.  He believed in local-level contacts.  The pyramids had been built from the bottom up, he noted.  He wanted to keep up the contacts he had made since he came here, with other local government representatives, including the Mayors of Gaza and Ashdod, among others, to build infrastructure and find solutions to their local problems.

    Discussion

    ZVI ZILKER, Mayor of Ashdod, said that vision was necessary to believe that change could happen.  There had to be equal conditions for workers.  The hours that workers had to wait to come into Israel were necessary, however, for security purposes.  Everyone had to work with that situation.

    MAGED ABU RAMADAN, the Mayor of Gaza, said that the irony was that the Mayor of Ashdod had to come to Moscow for them to have dinner together.  Indeed, the Mayor of Ashdod could come and have dinner with him in Gaza any time, and he would ensure his security.  But, he had applied many, many times to participate in such events in Israel, but he had always been refused entry because, he was told, he was a security threat.  If he made such contacts, he had to go to Cairo or Amman.  If people wanted a real prospect for living together, they had to put aside military ideas.  If they were to have a lasting peace together, they had to be allowed to meet and talk together.

    Mr. AL-HASSAN said that the Israeli Government had a policy of total punishment, which they practiced daily against the Palestinian people.  If the situation worsened, it was obvious the response from the Palestinians would not be a quiet one.  The international community had to do something and Israel had to do something if they want to move forward with peace.  The idea of pushing them to accept Olmert's plan was not viable.  That way, they were heading towards catastrophe.

    Mr. BEILIN said that, regarding cooperation with trade unions, it had been very, very difficult to have cooperation with both sides.  The Palestinian had been reluctant to have normal relations without peace.  He understood that position, but did not see how they could move forward that way.  In his view, the main opposition to local-level cooperation had come from the Palestinian side.

    He said that it was not so easy to change on the Israeli side either.  The current Israeli Defence Minister was a dove.  But reality made things very, very difficult for him.  The Qassams that were fired on Israel, for example, were a fact that could not be ignored.  Speaking about peace in an intangible manner was a bit simplistic.  On the Palestinian side, they had to be cautious that the peace they received was a real one, and that they were not outfoxed by the Israelis.  He thus felt they could not skip the step of talking about peace, a political solution.

    JELEM HAAZE, of the Liberal Trade Union of Belgium, said that he agreed that a political solution was needed, but that did not mean that, alongside such negotiations, other efforts should not be undertaken.  It was true that there had to be a sentiment among the people that something was happening towards peace for such efforts to be useful, but, indeed, all the recent surveys among all segments of the societies showed that the people were in favour of peace and that they were hopeful for the future.

    GUY HAAZE said that representatives of PLO or the Israeli Government would give one set of answers, but, in talking to local level people, like the Mayor of Gaza, Ashdod or Askelon, each was responsible and very proximate to the people they were working with and for.  They were constrained much more to respond to the problems that were brought to them.

    Mr. BEN-ABU said that he would like to work for such contacts.  If a delegation from Gaza came to visit him, it would be a start, and lead to other such contacts.  They had to work for solutions in the fields.

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