Ceisteanna – Questions. Priority Questions. - Foreign Conflicts.

Michael D. Higgins

Question:

2 Mr. M. Higgins asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he has discussed the present position in the Middle East with his European Union colleagues; if they propose to take an initiative; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15041/02]

Gay Mitchell

Question:

5 Mr. G. Mitchell asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the steps he and his EU colleagues have taken in relation to the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East. [15045/02]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 2 and 5 together.

The Taoiseach and I discussed the situation in the Middle East with our European partners at both the General Affairs Council last week and the European Council in Seville over the weekend. A declaration on the Middle East was issued in the conclusions to the Seville Council. The declaration called for the implementation of the most promising initiative being undertaken at the moment, which is the proposal to hold an international conference to discuss the situation in the Middle East. Ireland and our European Union partners support an early convening of the conference, which should address political and economic aspects as well as matters relating to security. It should confirm the parameters of a political solution on a realistic and well defined time scale. It should have wide regional involvement and appropriate participation by all the major actors.

The Seville declaration stressed the need for urgent action by the international community to address the situation in its political, security and economic aspects. It condemned all terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians and stated that the fight against terrorism must be accompanied by negotiation of a political solution. The objective is an end to the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 borders, with minor adjustments. The result should be two states living side by side within secure and recognised borders enjoying normal relations with their neighbours. Fair solutions will have to be found to the issues of Jerusalem and refugees.

The declaration supports reform of the Palestinian Authority and calls for an end to military operations in the occupied territories and restrictions on movement. It pointed out that walls will not bring peace and it renewed the European Union's commitment to work with all concerned to pursue every opportunity to bring peace to the region. It reiterated our commitment to contributing fully to peace building, as well as to the reconstruction of the Palestinian economy as an integral part of regional development. Ireland is committed to contributing over €5 million in aid this year to the Palestinian people and the European Union remains a principal contributor to the Palestinian economy.

We are extremely concerned at the deterioration of the situation in the Middle East in the past fortnight. We utterly condemned last week's terrorist attacks, but we believe the recent actions of the Israeli authorities will only fuel tensions in the region and could lead to further attacks by Palestinian militants. The occupation of Palestinian lands, attacks on Palestinians and the destruc tion of Palestinian infrastructure will only tend to provoke further terrorist actions, unacceptable and counterproductive as they may be. It makes little sense to call for action against terrorism, while at the same time destroying or paralysing the means available to the Palestinian Authority to carry out such a policy.

Ireland and our EU partners will work with the parties and with our partners in the international community, especially with the United States in the quartet grouping, to achieve these goals and to pursue every opportunity for peace and for a decent future for all the people of the region. We welcome the announcement yesterday by the Palestinian Authority of a reform plan and dates for presidential and legislative elections. We call on all concerned to make it possible to hold these elections.

Will the Minister explicitly comment on the initiative of the United States? Annex 6, page 35 of the Seville Presidency conclusions, which makes reference to the Middle East, contains a certain amount of vagueness in the first and final paragraphs. When the Minister says the European Union will take an increased interest in the issue of the Middle East or continue its efforts in the framework of the quartet, it raises the question of what is the status of the US proposals in the context of the quartet?

The Minister's answer today and Annex 6 of the Seville Presidency conclusions suggest that the problem is the nature of the Palestinian Authority. Is not the complete rejection by Israel of different UN resolutions, its insistence on occupation and its abuse of military force not a greater problem? Why did that not feature in the Seville Presidency conclusions? There is a single sentence asking for a reduction in military activity. It is hard to know what initiatives the Minister favours. If he is confining himself to the quartet, is he bound by the US proposal? If he is not bound by it, what is he doing in the context of the quartet?

The involvement of the European Union in the quartet is set out in its statement to the quartet on 12 May. We are in a very difficult and problematic situation with very little optimism about how we can solve the problem. I acknowledge, as we have done repeatedly at both Government and EU level, that the question of adherence to Security Council resolutions is an important aspect of resolution of this problem.

There are some positive aspects to the statement by the US President. There are also aspects to it with which we would not necessarily agree. We welcome the US engagement in the process, but we consider that the question of the Palestinian leadership is one for the Palestinian people to decide. We hope efforts will continue to convene an international conference at which the various participants can express their views on how the vision of a two state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be achieved. We will continue to contribute to this process in particular through our input in the co-ordination of the EU position within the quartet.

The only real palpable initiative that is currently available is the need to call an international conference. It is clear the Oslo process is in serious trouble. There is violence and counter violence, suicide bombings, incursions and occupation. This is the outcome of there not being a peace process in any tangible sense at present. The need to have an international conference to engender some sense of direction, purpose and possibility to the continuing terrible problems is the best possible way forward as we see it. However, a huge job remains to be done. There is a total absence of confidence in either party's ability to sit down and resolve this problem between the two of them.

What is the Minister's view of the expression about the re-election of President Arafat made by the US President, which seems to have received tacit support from the United Kingdom Prime Minister in recent days? Has the Department of Foreign Affairs assessed the implications for Ireland of an increase in the conflict in the Middle East? What steps has the Minister and the EU taken to ensure the US view, which seems to have been given tacit support by the UK, is not the prevailing view and that we respect the right of the Palestinian people to chose their own leaders as they see fit?

Obviously, I cannot speak for the British Prime Minister. It is only fair to say he has confirmed that the question of the leadership of the Palestinian people is a matter for Palestinian people to decide. Regarding the current reality, the British Prime Minister says the Palestinian Authority will need to be given the wherewithal to act. I referred in my initial reply to the fact that it is very difficult for the Palestinian Authority to deal with many of the serious problems that exist if part of the military response of the Israeli government is to destroy the infrastructure and the capability by which one might be able to deal with those who are involved in suicide bombings and those who are putting at risk peace and security within Israel. Israeli citizens are entitled to peace and security also.

From our point of view, it is very important to try to get people around a table at an international conference. We need to try to get interlocutors who will deal with each other. At the moment we do not have that possibility. There is an absence of confidence on the Israeli side in the capacity of the Palestinian Authority to provide the basic security it requires. I have made the point to the Israelis that it is very difficult to objectively test that ability if one is systematically destroying the infrastructure by which one might be able to achieve it. Therefore, we have a vicious circle of assertion and counter assertion as to the bone fides of both sides to deal with the issue in the context of the peace process and finding a political track that will also need a security track.

The Tenet agreement is the key to getting the Mitchell train to leave the station. However, we have now reached a stage where there is not a basis on which talks are taking place and we need to re-establish that. The idea behind the international conference is to try to pull that together because leaving it to the Israelis and Palestinians alone clearly means the peace process will not progress in the near future.

When does the Minister believe the international conference will take place? Annex 6 of the Seville Presidency conclusions states that the objective is an end to the occupation and the early establishment of a democratic, viable, peaceful and sovereign state of Palestine on the basis of its 1967 borders, if necessary with minor adjustments agreed by the parties. What is the position of that aspiration within the work the Minister is doing on a common basis within the quartet?

The Minister did not address the part of the question I asked in relation to whether an assessment has been done of the implications for Ireland of an escalation of the conflict in the Middle East. Is there uniformity in the approach of the European Council of Ministers to this matter? Are the British and other EU Governments singing off the same hymn sheet in relation to what is happening in the Middle East or has Mr. Blair and his Government gone off on a solo run? What is the status of the British announcement in recent days?

The position of the EUvis-à-vis the quartet and the level of agreement with the US, for example, is set out in the statement of 12 May. That sets out the common position as far as one can set out such a position. There are differences of opinion between the EU and the United States regarding aspects of this matter – there is no point in saying otherwise. It could also be suggested that there are different approaches within the Bush Administration.

I have not conducted a specific assessment on the deterioration in the region. As we all know any deterioration in the Middle East has not only local and regional implications but, in the worst case scenario, more widespread ones as well. Clearly the Middle East is a place where we are continuing and increasing the expansion of exports. Obviously political instability in any part of the world affects our interests in so far as we have them in that region. We are trying to work with others in the European Union to see what way we can stabilise the region and provide a framework by which a political tract can be recreated which will lead to real engagement between the parties.

The common foreign policy position is articu lated by Javier Solana on behalf of the Council. He has worked exceptionally well—

He has worked very unsuccessfully.

—compared to the position prior to his appointment, when we had 15 Foreign Ministers.

He has not done badly for a socialist.

He has put a lot of energy and commitment into this issue. He was part of the Mitchell commission.

He was expelled from Israel.

We all know that little progress is being made on the Middle East problem, but that cannot be left at the door of Javier Solana or the European Union. The European Union is the only organ that is providing the financial wherewithal for the Palestinian Authority allowing it to continue to exist. Without the financial contribution of the European Union the Palestinian Authority would be gone. Clearly there are areas where we would like to have greater political influence. We must work to stop the dichotomy of Israel looking exclusively to the United States and the Palestinians looking exclusively to the EU. That is the point of trying to build up the idea of the quartet. We are trying to get common positions of substance where we can speak to both sides with the same degree of influence. Unfortunately that is not currently available to the EU regarding Israel or to the US regarding the Palestinians.

We are seeking positive neutrality.