Europe must respond to Obama on Middle East (Guardian 26.6.2009)

President Obama is setting forth on an entirely new path in the Middle East with great courage (Leaders, 25 June). He has broken with the previous policies and is engaging in an effort to build for the future. His address in Cairo testifies to this. Within days of becoming president of the United States, Obama was urged to throw his energy into resolving the conflict between Israel and Palestine. The call came from 10 former US government officials representing both major political parties, including Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski Paul Volcker, James Wolfensohn; their eminence lends their appeal great importance as the new American foreign policy unfolds.

The group issued a report, Last Chance for a Two-State Israel-Palestine Agreement, which we believe offers a clear-sighted view of the situation and proposes a balanced, effective and fair approach for resolving the conflict. It will remain involved and continue to offer ideas and support to the White House as the president pursues his efforts to broker a peace settlement. We think, as does the US group, that the Israelis and Palestinians are not in a position to restart the peace process by themselves. In the current context, the United States and the president have a unique responsibility to initiate a process for a settlement based on principles already agreed by Israelis and Palestinians.

The US group is correct in stressing the need for a two-state solution based on the borders as at June 1967, with minor reciprocal and agreed modifications, as expressed in a one-to-one land swap, to take into account areas heavily populated by Israelis in the West Bank. In this regard, we believe that the course of the wall, and even its very existence, will need to be revised within the framework of a comprehensive settlement. The refugee problem would be settled in a way consistent with the two-state solution, which does not entail a general right of return, but addresses the Palestinian refugees’ sense of injustice, and provides them with meaningful financial compensation as well as resettlement assistance.

As for Jerusalem, the city would be the capital of both states, with Jewish neighbourhoods falling under Israeli sovereignty and Arab neighbourhoods under Palestinian sovereignty, with special arrangements for the Old City providing each side control of its respective holy places and unimpeded access by each community to them. The Palestinian state would be demilitarised and provided with security mechanisms that address Israeli concerns while respecting Palestinian sovereignty.

Finally, a multinational force would be deployed to ensure a peaceful transitional security period. This coalition peacekeeping structure, under a UN mandate, would include US leadership of a Nato force supplemented by Jordanians, Egyptians and others.

For Palestinians to be empowered again as reliable partners, capable of reaching and implementing an agreement, they need to form a national unity government that includes Hamas. Israel itself, through its indirect negotiation with Hamas, has acknowledged that the movement is simply too important and powerful to be ignored. Washington should therefore shift its objective from ousting Hamas to modifying its behaviour, and should offer it inducements that will help promote a moderate vision within its ranks and cease discouraging third parties from engaging with Hamas in ways that might help clarify the movement’s views and test its behaviour.

The US should actively encourage Palestinian national reconciliation and make it clear that a government that agrees to a ceasefire with Israel, accepts President Mahmoud Abbas as the chief negotiator, and commits itself to abiding by the results of a national referendum on a future peace agreement would not be boycotted or sanctioned.

We firmly endorse the parameters proposed by the American eminent persons Group and look forward to advancing European initiatives consonant with the spirit and vision of our American counterparts. President Obama’s address in Cairo was a defining speech, inspired and sincere, likely to convince all those who had lost hope of seeing the Middle East live in peace one day. It is clear to us that Europe should help him in every way it can to pursue his efforts, in spite of the inevitable obstacles that will emerge.
Alain Juppé, Chris Patten, Clare Short, Erkki Tuomioja, Felipe González, Helmut Schmidt, Hubert Védrine, Jean François-Poncet, Jorge Sampaio, Lena Hjelm Wallén, Lionel Jospin, Louis Michel, Mary Robinson, Massimo d’Alema, Michel Rocard, Peter Sutherland, Richard von Weiszäcker, Romano Prodi, Simone Veil, Terasa Patricio Gouveia, Vaira Vike-Freiberga

The need for strong resolution in halting all construction in illegal Israeli settlements is even more vital than you describe. The settlements themselves, awful as they are, are just the most visible part of a suffocating network of occupation. Large tracts of land around them have been stolen from Palestinian farmers and are used to grow crops sold in British supermarkets. More than 90% of water resources in the West Bank have been stolen to supply them, causing great hardship to Palestinians. Access to the settlements is strictly controlled by a vast network of settler-only roads, which take yet more land.

The scale and true intent of this pernicious policy is most evident in the Jordan Valley, 95% of which is occupied under military law. In 1967 320,000 Palestinians, mostly farmers, lived in this fertile area. That number has been reduced to only 56,000 by a systematic programme of settlement building, house demolition and land seizure, plus control of 98% of water supplies. This is a deliberate, brutal policy of ethnic cleansing. President Obama must stay firm in the face of what will undoubtedly be substantial pressure.
Michael Gwilliam
Norton-on-Derwent, North Yorkshire


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