I thank the Chairman and the Members of the Oireachtas for hosting me at this committee. I would like to survey the principal reasons the peace process has not moved forward as well as many in the international community had hoped. It is no secret that we are in the situation today where we neither have proximity talks nor direct negotiations taking place, even though past Israeli Governments had active negotiations with the Palestinian Authority leadership. To put it in perspective, while many in the international community had hoped we would reach a breakthrough, we have now gone through six Israeli Governments since the Oslo agreements were signed in 1993, two American Presidents with the United States as a principal party providing support for the negotiations and two Palestinian Authority Presidents. However, in that entire period since 1993, we have not reached a final peace accord. Why has the process not worked?
I will suggest at least four principal reasons which will help us understand what is blocking peace. One of the main reasons concerns the nature of the conflict. Are the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the larger Arab-Israeli conflict largely a territorial dispute and could we, if we just had better maps and sharper pens, resolve this territorial dispute and end one of the most difficult conflicts on the global agenda, or is there something else going on? One of the best test cases for examining the source of the conflict is what happened in August and September 2005 when Israel unilaterally pulled out of the Gaza Strip. Committee members may remember that at the time Israel did not leave Gaza in the context of an agreement nor did not make claims which it would have been justified in making, under UN Security Council Resolution 242, to retain strategic parts of the Gaza Strip for its own security, something which had been recognised by the international community as far back as November 1967. Instead, it got out of every square inch of Gaza.
The hope was at the time that Gaza would turn into the beginning of an independent Palestinian state. Gaza had the potential to become an area of economic and political success. There are large gas deposits offshore of Gaza that have been developed by British Gas and it is an area where Israeli settlements had developed an agribusiness which they turned over to the Palestinians when they left the area. Also, shorefront property is sought by hotel chains throughout the Middle East and Gaza has beautiful Mediterranean shoreline. The potential was there to turn Gaza into something and the international community has very much supported the efforts of the Palestinian people to create for themselves self-governing institutions and a stable economy.
All the foundations were there, but what happened after Israel pulled out? If people assume that the conflict is chiefly territorial, what should have happened after the pull-out was that not only would the Palestinian state in Gaza develop, but one of the alleged sources of hostility between Palestinian organisations and Israel would have been addressed and the flames of hostility would have been reduced. A key measure of the level of hostility was the issue of rocket launches. Since 2001, Hamas and other organisations in the Gaza Strip have been launching Qassam rockets — a homemade rocket — at Israeli civilian targets. These rockets are an inaccurate munition and are only useful for striking at large areas such as cities. The city of Sderot has been in the front line of the Qassam attacks. A remarkable piece of data I can share is that if we compare the number of rocket attacks against Israel in the year 2005 — when we left Gaza — to the year 2006 when we were out of Gaza, the number does not decrease as a result of the reduction in hostility, but increases. It does not just double or triple, but increases by a factor of 500%. In other words, the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and how it addressed Palestinian territorial concerns did not reduce the conflict.
I will now put forward my view on what I consider is largely behind the maintenance of the struggle and conflict against the people of Israel. It is no secret that Hamas, which took over the Gaza Strip in January 2006 — initially through the Palestinian elections and later in 2007 through military coup — is allied with two major Middle Eastern forces. First, Hamas is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, a radical Islamic organisation seeking to re-establish a global caliphate at some point in the future and which has been one of the sources of jihadist ideology in many other groups emanating from the Muslim Brotherhood in subsequent years. The other key ally of Hamas is the Islamic Republic of Iran, which in the past number of years has been seeking to spread its regional influence across the Middle East, including in the Gulf states, Yemen, Lebanon, Egypt and the Gaza Strip. I wrote a book on Saudi Arabia in 2003 and at that time Saudi Arabia accounted for from 50% to 70% of the Hamas budge, but the Saudi role has diminished. Today, Iran is the principal supporter of Hamas, with financing, weaponry and military training.
Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip meant that it was withdrawing from the border area between Palestinian Gaza and Egyptian Sinai. Prior to the withdrawal, Israel had maintained a very small strip of land that came to be known as the Philadelphia route, which was approximately 200 feet in width — a very narrow strip of land. Even at that time, between 2001 and 2005, Palestinian organisations exploited the Philadelphia route for building smuggling tunnels. Israel tried with special forces to limit the effects of those tunnels, but after it withdrew from Gaza and from the Philadelphia route, the number of smuggling tunnels mushroomed and as a result, the amount and quality of weapons that came into Gaza increased. For example, Israel found Hamas was importing two different forms of Grad rockets, a Chinese and an Iranian version, with much longer range than a Qassam. The Grad rocket was reaching Israeli cities like Ashkelon and Ashdod until a more improved rocket was eventually introduced in the year 2005 that could reach as far as Beersheba as well. This meant that close to 1 million Israeli citizens came under the range of Hamas rockets and the rockets of other organisations, prior to Operation Cast Lead. One of the principal reasons the conflict continues is that the conflict is not just a function of what Israel is doing or not doing. It is also a function of the regional ambitions of other actors, such as the Iranians, who have had a pivotal role in maintaining the conflict.
Let me raise a second issue which has been a problem, namely, the response of regional states to Israel's past efforts to make peace. Recently, the Obama Administration has sought to create an exchange of confidence building measures by both sides to try to move the peace discussions along and create an environment for peace-making. Part of this has been an unprecedented request that Israel freeze settlement construction in the West Bank. This is unprecedented because settlement freeze does not appear in the Oslo agreements which did not assume that the Palestinians would stop building nor that Israel would stop building and that the eventual borders between Israel and the Palestinians would be determined by concrete or by the pouring of concrete and building materials. None the less, because the United States requested it, Israel agreed to a ten-month moratorium on construction for its own civilians in the West Bank. It had been hoped we would see some kind of reciprocal move by the other side. It is no secret that the US Government turned to the Arab states and hoped they would make some gesture in return so that there could be an exchange of gestures by both sides. For example, President Obama approached King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia asking for some kind of Saudi gesture towards Israel. It was suggested in the newspapers that perhaps the Saudis would allow Israeli aircraft to fly in Saudi airspace, but no gesture came and Israel was alone in making the gesture for a ten-month freeze on construction in its settlements and homes in the West Bank.
In my view, a third factor that has occurred over the past year which has stymied the move to a negotiating process is the expectation of the Palestinians that at the end of the day they do not have to negotiate with Israel. Last year, for example, Javier Solana, the chief foreign policy czar, so to speak, of the European Union, put forward a suggestion that perhaps the European Union would request the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state, perhaps on the lines of 1967, which Israel regards as indefensible lines. This expectation that, ultimately, European countries will lead an effort to see to it that a Palestinian state is declared without negotiations is yet another reason the Palestinians may not bother to negotiate. They may have no incentive to make compromises with Israel because they will get what they are seeking through international intervention.
A number of months ago, I was asked by the British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, to come to London to meet him to discuss the progress of the peace process. I told him I knew Mahmoud Abbas was on a European tour and would visit London, among other cities. I suggested the most important message a European power could give Mahmoud Abbas was to encourage him to get back to negotiations. If the Palestinians hear sympathetic words of European support, that the Europeans will push unilaterally for a Palestinian state, then their incentives for negotiations will drop away. This is hovering over much of the current discussion. I wanted to share this information with the committee members because of their concern with the direction of the peace process.
I will conclude with one other factor which has also affected the environment of the peace process and which up until the present makes it difficult to build confidence on the Israeli side with regard to the intentions of our Palestinian neighbours. When Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin met Chairman Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn on 13 September 1993, part of the original Oslo agreement was an exchange of letters on mutual recognition. It was not a full recognition nor a formal legal act but it was the beginning of a gesture to show how important it was for the Israeli side to recognise the Palestinians and for the Palestinians to recognise the Israelis. Some committee members might have heard Prime Minister Netanyahu say that if Israel is being asked to recognise the rights of the Palestinian people to a Palestinian state, we expect to hear that the Palestinians will recognise the rights of the Jewish people to a Jewish nation state. This is especially important because over recent years we have seen repeated references on the Palestinian side that raise questions about the authenticity of the Jewish presence in this land. One of the most famous occurrences of this sort was at the very end of the 2000 Camp David summit outside Washington when Chairman Yasser Arafat turned to President Clinton and said, "We are talking about Jerusalem and you keep talking about the temple, Mr. Clinton. There was no temple in Jerusalem." In subsequent interviews, Yasser Arafat made the statement that maybe there was a temple in Nablus or maybe it was in Yemen but it was never in Jerusalem.
The statement of Arafat was not just a one-off diplomatic ploy but was picked up by much of the Palestinian leadership, by Nabil Shaath, by Said Barakat, by Yasser Abed Rabbo and by Mahmoud Abbas. Last year, Saddam Fayadh spoke about Jerusalem at the United Nations General Assembly. He spoke about Christian and Muslim rights in Jerusalem and he was completely silent on the issue of Jewish rights in Jerusalem. Even if we have a political disagreement, one has to acknowledge the universal importance of Jerusalem to all the great faiths and failure to make that acknowledgement raises fundamental questions about this issue of mutual recognition.
The fact of the matter is that the Jewish people never lost their connection to the land. Historians using documentation from the Byzantines and from other Christian sources have shown there was a Jewish majority presence until the Muslim conquest. Jews streamed back to their land and to Jerusalem prior to the arrival of the British, prior to the League of Nations and the Balfour Declaration and even during the time when the Ottoman Empire hosted Jewish refugees from the Spanish Inquisition. According to western diplomatic documentation, by 1863 the Jews re-established their majority in Jerusalem. It is true that Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus were cities of Arab population but Jerusalem was already in the 19th century a Jewish population centre before the European powers intervened in the future of theOttoman Empire.
I will conclude with the following observations. It is important that we rebuild a peace process and this process must create a negotiation between the two parties. The only solution that can emerge must emerge from free negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians with the support of the Arab states. I believe the international community can make a tremendous contribution if it allows us and supports a return to direct negotiations as they existed before. There is a lot of talk in the air about preconditions for negotiations. We never had preconditions back in the time of the signing of the Oslo agreements nor when Prime Minister Barak met Chairman Arafat at Camp David in 2000. We never had preconditions when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas as the Palestinian President held secret talks in 2008. We must get to direct negotiations and we must build on mutual recognition and we must create an environment which does not allow Iran to expand its influence in the Middle East at the expense of Israel and the Sunni Arab states but rather creates a coalition that seeks stability and peace. I will conclude now and I will be pleased to answer questions.