I would like to congratulate Members of the Seanad for this timely debate on the Middle East peace process. In recent weeks the process has reached a most serious impasse. The Government, together with our partners in the European Union, is most concerned at this development. This debate is, accordingly, very opportune.
Before exploring the current situation, however, I would first like to set this debate in its historic context. As Senators may recall, the Middle East peace process saw the light of day in November 1991 at Madrid when a multilateral conference, co-chaired by the US and the then USSR, was opened. The purpose of this conference was to inaugurate two separate yet parallel negotiating tracks — a bilateral one aimed at resolving problems between Israel and each of its immediate neighbours and a multilateral one designed to address regional problems on subjects such as arms control and economic development.
In October 1994 the bilateral track saw a major success with an agreement between Israel and Jordan. However, the multilateral track discussions have produced no real result to date.
Shortly after the Madrid Conference got under way secret talks were initiated, under the auspices of the Government of Norway, between the Israelis and the Palestinians. These resulted in what has become known as the Oslo Agreement of September 1993. This agreement was truly historic. In signing it, Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation had moved beyond their previous positions. Israel recognised the PLO and accepted the principle of "Land for Peace".
For its part, the PLO recognised Israel, renounced terrorism and reaffirmed that those articles of the PLO charter which deny Israelis the right to exist were inoperative and no longer valid. The Oslo accord, therefore, contained the essential ingredients for a just and durable settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
We, in Ireland, and the international community generally were greatly heartened and fully supported what was seen as a major step forward. The Oslo Agreement and the secondary agreements, which came later, contained provisions which envisaged a series of Israeli redeployments from the Occupied Territories — the West Bank and Gaza — overrun by Israeli forces during the 1967 war.
These redeployments were to take place simultaneously with the growth of local Palestinian self-government in the evacuated territories. It was intended that once these redeployments were completed — and the Palestinians were hoping that by then they would have upwards of 80 per cent of the Occupied Territories under their jurisdiction — what are known as the Final Status Talks would begin to address the remaining highly contentious outstanding issues, such as water, refugees and above all the status of Jerusalem. The entire process was to be concluded by May 1999.
Given the history of the Middle East since 1948 and the extremely strong and deeply rooted emotions on both sides, it was not surprising that the Oslo Agreement faced many obstacles in its implementation. Nonetheless, progress was being made. These obstacles were gradually being surmounted when, in November 1995, there took place the tragic murder of the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr. Rabin, one of the co-signatories of the Oslo Agreement.
This was followed a few weeks later by a series of appalling suicide bombings in Israel with very heavy loss of civilian lives. These events contributed to the election in May 1996 of a new government in Israel led by the more right wing Likud Party of Mr. Nethanyahu. Prime Minister Nethanyahu, who was elected on a strong security platform, took a very different approach to the agreements than his predecessors. Discussions with Syria about a possible Israeli-Syrian peace agreement were halted. A number of high profile unilateral Israeli actions, such as the building of new Israeli settlements at Har Homa and Abu Ghneim in East Jerusalem which were seen as particularly provocative by the Palestinian inhabitants of the occupied territories, were undertaken. What was perceived as the relentless efforts of the Israeli authorities to reduce the number of Palestinians living in Jerusalem continued unabated. The situation was further exacerbated by a number of suicide bombings undertaken by Hamas terrorists with serious loss of life. The result was that negotiations came to a very definite halt.
With the virtual collapse of dialogue between the two parties most affected, the US Administration has since last summer been making strenuous efforts, which Ireland and other European Union member states have fully supported, to restart the process. The basis of this approach has been to link progress in redeployment by Israel with progress by the Palestinians in tackling terrorism.
During a visit to the region last September, the US Secretary of State, Mrs. Albright, tried to persuade the Israeli authorities to freeze settlement expansion but her request was, by and large, ignored. Her visit did lead to talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators at Washington but these achieved very little.
In recent months the US has mounted a major diplomatic effort to persuade Israel to accept proposals which it put forward with the aim of breaking the deadlock. The US has concentrated its attempts on achieving agreement on the terms of a second redeployment. The key element of this was that Israel would redeploy from an additional 13 per cent of the land in the occupied territories; the Palestinian Authority is currently responsible for only 3 per cent of these territories. However, Mr. Nethanyahu is vehemently opposed to considering any redeployment exceeding 9 per cent of the territory in question. The Palestinians, for their part, originally sought a redeployment of 30 per cent but eventually and reluctantly accepted the US figure.
During the talks last month in London, the US Secretary of State, Mrs. Albright, held direct negotiations with the Israeli Prime Minister. When agreement was not reached in London, negotiations were once again resumed in Washington the following week but failed to reach a result. Since then the US has sent a number of negotiators to the region in an attempt to keep the talks on its proposal alive.
The Israeli Government recently announced it was prepared to implement Security Council Resolution 425, passed in 1978 following the first Israeli invasion of Lebanon. This resolution called for Israel's immediate withdrawal from Lebanon at that time. However, in the meantime the issue of Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon has become coupled with the issue of Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which is Syrian territory. There is no indication that the Israelis are yet prepared to discuss withdrawal from the Golan Heights.
The EU has played a complementary role to that of the US in supporting and promoting the peace process. The EU remains constantly seized of the issues raised in the process which directly affect its interests, both political and economic, in the region and the subject is discussed at virtually every meeting of the General Affairs and European Council. The Luxembourg Council of last December issued a detailed and balanced declaration calling on both sides to implement the agreements which they had entered into. Each Presidency involves a visit to the region of the current Chairperson of the Council of Ministers. The current EU Presidency has, with the backing of the member states, been particularly active on the issue. There were, for example, separate visits to the region by Prime Minister Blair and the British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, since the end of February.
The European Union has also made significant contributions of 700 million ECU to the Palestinian economy in terms of aid since 1993. Indeed, the EU is the biggest contributor to the funds of the United Nations body responsible for running Palestinian refugee camps — the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA. It has provided direct assistance to the Palestinians in the field of combating terrorism. The EU has been particularly active in the economic sphere. It has endeavoured to promote several projects of importance to the Palestinian side such as the development of an airport and seaport at Gaza. However, both these projects are currently being held up due to the lack of progress in the peace process.
The EU role in the peace process was also enhanced when, in late 1996, during the Irish Presidency, Ambassador Moratinos was appointed EU Special Envoy. Since then Ambassador Moratinos has endeavoured to promote a stronger EU role in the peace process and has had a series of talks with all the main parties in the region with some significant results to show for his efforts.
For its part, Ireland has taken a very active interest in the Middle East situation. We have not hesitated to speak out on issues such as the new settlements at Har Homa and Abu Ghneim or to condemn the horrific suicide attacks last year. The Irish aid programme for Palestinians offers support in the educational sector as well as providing assistance for economic and rural development. We also make a significant contribution to UNRWA. Since its inception, we have been one of the main troop contributors to UNIFIL, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, where nearly 40 Irish soldiers have lost their lives.
Ireland also plays an active part in the internal deliberations of the EU. The Middle East was one of the priorities of Ireland's Presidency of the EU in the second half of 1996 and we are supportive of the current active role being played by the UK Presidency in this context. Ireland has, in its frequent contacts with representatives of both sides, endeavoured to encourage a spirit of greater compromise.
We are conscious that time is running out for a settlement under the Oslo Agreement. It is very clear that in spite of vigorous efforts by the US and the EU Presidency, the necessary common ground has not been found between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Indeed, rather than having confidence that progress is being made, I am concerned that the Middle East peace process is facing its most severe crisis to date, a crisis which affects its very foundations. There is a real and growing danger that the men of violence will again endeavour to seize their chance. It would be tragic if the small measure of achievement made since 1993 were to be swept away by more bloodshed.
Efforts are still underway to rescue the process at this eleventh hour; France and Egypt have proposed an international conference on the matter. It is too early to be optimistic about the outcome of this proposal but we are of course willing to discuss and support every effort at progress. It is clear that progress in the Middle East peace process has been depressingly meagre. However, it is equally clear that ultimately the final decision on the peace process will be made by the representatives of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. To date, the insistence on short term advantage has bedevilled the evolution of that process and the chance of longer term agreement. In spite of the dismal record of progress to date, I am sure Members will agree that we, both nationally and with our partners in Europe, must continue to remain involved and continue to support the search for peace in the Middle East.