Posted on May 29, 2009 in Washington Watch
U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Briefing
The Middle East: The Road to Peace
Dirksen Senate Office Building, Room 419
Washington DC 20150, May 15th, 2009 2:00 PM
Senator John Kerry (D-MA) hosted a briefing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the current road to peace for the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. The briefing featured former British Prime Minister and current Middle East Quartet Envoy Tony Blair, and was attended by members of the committee, government staffers, and various representatives from local non-profits and international NGOs.
Senator Kerry addressed the room with a prepared opening statement, referring to the coming month as a “critical month for this Administration’s Mideast policymaking.” He said that while peace will not come to the Middle East easily, this moment “presents and opportunity we cannot afford to miss.” He discussed previous peace agreements, and his belief that they failed due to lack of buy-in from Arab states, and that the way forward would be through developing a Regional Road Map that incorporates some elements of the Arab Peace Initiative.
Senator Richard Lugar also presented an opening statement, welcoming Mr. Tony Blair to the proceedings, before delving into his thoughts on the conflict. Senator Lugar stated his belief that the United States has “a strong national security interest in helping to achieve a resolution of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.” He believed that settling the conflict would strengthen American credibility in the region, as well as hinder terrorist propaganda and diminish the influence of Iran. He discussed the lack of progress in this matter, assigning the blame to both the Palestinian and Israeli lack of unity and cohesion within their respective governments. He expressed his firm conviction that the international community, led by the United States, has to get involved to achieve meaningful progress towards a settlement.
Mr. Blair began with his own opening statement, highlighting what he thought were the key points in establishing peace in the region. First and foremost, Mr. Blair articulated a growing sentiment; that there is “no workable alternative to the two-state solution.” He conceded that this would not be an easy task, but not impossible. He reiterated that it was the only way forward, and that a majority of people on both sides of the conflict were in favor of such a solution.
In answering questions, Mr. Blair said that the key to succeeding, in addition to a determined effort by the U.S and the international community, is to understand the “reality on the ground” thinking that dominates both sides of the conflict. For their part, the Palestinians are concerned that they would have to make concessions in the defining terms of statehood, but the facts of occupation, the reality on the ground, would remain the same- movement restrictions, lack of border control, expanding Israeli settlements, permits- meaning they would not really have a true sovereign state. For the Israelis, their concern revolves around security in their state. They fear that if they concede land for peace and return to pre-1967 borders, but still have to face random rocket fire and suicide bombings, they will have given the Palestinians a state without establishing any real peace. Mr. Blair then spoke of the narrowing window of opportunity, and that it was time for all parties to make a concerted effort to achieve a real solution, not just go about the process.
Senator John Kerry (Chairman, D-MA): One of the things I’ve found in the recent journeys to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Sudan, et cetera, is the degree to which the extremism, the radicalization and religious extremism that we see translated into violence in so many places finds a sort of organizing principle around this dilemma of Israel and Palestine.
PM Blair: The Israel-Palestine conflict did not create this extremism we see. It’s not the author of it. And let’s also be clear that we can resolve the Israel-Palestine question and this extremism will still exist. That is true. However, if defeating this extremism is about mounting an alliance of sensible, modern, moderate people who believe in peaceful coexistence, if that is at the heart of it, then resolving this issue is a major, major part of empowering that alliance and allowing it to fulfill its objective.
Sen. Kerry: What steps on each side could be taken without an agreement as confidence building steps?
PM Blair: I think they are actually fairly easy to describe….. One thing that is very obvious is for the Palestinians, that security capacity that they have been building up, they got to continue to build up, they got to take the decisions to start implementing the rule of law changes that are necessary to give Israel confidence the Palestinian state will be properly run…. I think for Israel the confidence building measures it can take are also reasonably clear. First of all, it is important that settlement activity does not put at risk the concept or viability of a Palestinian state.
Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA): I have here an associated press article…it’s entitled “Iran/Syria defend Palestinian militancy.” The article talks about a recent trip to Syria made by Ahmadinejad. According to the article, Ahmadinejad met with the chief of Hamas and other Palestinian radical groups based in the country and “affirmed Iran’s support for the Palestinian people and their resistance.” He also praised Iran’s alliance, and this is troubling to me, with Syrian President Assad saying that “The two countries alliance was achieving ‘victories in preventing the big powers (and we know who that is) offensive to dominate the region’.” So what steps can the US take to curtail Iran’s involvement with Hamas, particularly as the Obama administration looks to isolate Hamas? And what support do you think is Iran providing to Hamas in terms of weapons?
PM Blair: …the way of reducing their influence
within the region is to show precisely that we want peace. It’s to take
away—and this is the importance of moving forward with the Palestinian
issue—is to take away accords that they abuse, frankly, in order to gain
support for their end. And the Iranian relationship with Hamas, I mean,
I think it’s fairly clear that they both fund and they arm them, as
they do other groups within the region.
My response to that, however, is that the best way of pushing them back is to show, in this case, the Palestinian people there is a moderate and modern way forward, where we live together in peace….
So equally as I would say to people, “You cannot say let’s concentrate in Iran and forget about Palestine,” I would say, “It’s equally true you shouldn’t concentrate on Palestine and forget about Iran.”
Senator Bob Corker (R-TN): I was out for an Energy markup and understood there were some questions about the settlement issue and I think you may have mentioned that that’s something that we need to get to after some basic general understandings are agreed to. But I guess that issue, to me, seems like one that, as it continues on a daily basis, indicates that there’s not seriousness towards working towards a two-state solution. It just seems to me to be a constant stick in the eye, if you will. Just as an educational piece to me, I’d like to understand how that can be left aside when it’s such an irritant on a daily basis and, certainly, we’d love any comments you might have about the current prime minister position on a two-state solution and how we actually see that going forward, we can discuss that in a meaningful way, when we have a leader who isn’t even acknowledging that.
PM Blair: First of all, I think the settlement question has to be dealt with immediately, as well as in the longer term. So I think there’s a short-term question there. Then there’s a longer-term question, which is once we know what the outlines of a Palestinian state would be, obviously, that then has profound implications for what happens to the settlements.
Regarding Netanyahu: I think and believe that the Israeli prime minister’s position is different. It is that he wants to be sure that that Palestinian state is consistent with his perception of Israel’s security requirements. Now, I think if he is in that position, which is what I would call building the state from the bottom up, as well as negotiating it from the top down, if he is in that position, we can work with that. But the test will be whether the actions then over the coming months are consistent with that view.
Sen. Corker: Is there any sense that a cessation, a stopping of settlements for some period of time while they—I mean, because we continue to prejudice the issues of boundaries and all of those kind of things as settlements continue. Any discussion about just stopping as is for some period of time?
PM Blair: Yes, of course. That’s exactly the issues
the road map examines. And you come back to the same thing, which is to
make sure that there is not activity in respect of settlements that
then makes a Palestinian state either untenable or unviable.
But also, and this is the other problem, if you get settlement expansion at the same time as you’re negotiating over a two-state solution, Palestinians then feel, “Look, we’re being made fools of here. You’re saying you want a two-state solution, but you’re taking actions that are inconsistent with it.” That’s why the issue is important. Now, as I say, I think and hope there are ways that we can ensure that nothing happens that prejudices the final outcome of the settlement and the negotiation around the two-state solution.
I hope we can find those ways of doing that over the next few weeks, but undoubtedly, of course, the settlement issue will be very important.
Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH): In the conversations that you’ve had with Israeli leaders, whether it’s Prime Minister Netanyahu or Minister Barak, was it your assessment that they appreciated the analysis that you were making and agreed that there might be an opportunity to make some progress on the Iranian front by addressing the Palestinian issue?
PM Blair: Look, their view is very simple and, in a sense, I think it’s really this, which is, “Look, whatever happens, the Iranian question has to be confronted.” I think that they do understand, however, the argument that we would put, which is if you’re to mobilize the majority across the region in favor of a sensible engagement of a peaceful coexistence within the region, then the Palestinian issue has a role to play.
Sen. Shaheen: Thank you. I was in the Middle East for the Palestinian elections in 2006 and, certainly, many of the Palestinians that we talked to as part of that mission indicated their support for Hamas was based not only support for a terrorist organization, but on concern that the corruption that they had seen from the Palestinian Authority and Fatah, the ability of the PA to deliver services was not there, and that Hamas they viewed as an alternative that might better be able to deliver social services throughout the West Bank and Gaza and restore order that seemed to be lacking in many areas under the Palestinian Authority. So I guess my question is, given what we’ve seen on the West Bank—and I know that there has been some progress recently with respect to supporting President Abbas and the leadership of the Palestinian Authority—what more should the quartet, what more should we be doing to provide support for legitimate Palestinian government on the West Bank that would give encouragement to all Palestinians that this is—and to Israelis that this is a government leadership that they can count on?
PM Blair: What Prime Minister Fayyad personally has done, with the support of President Abbas, is to make changes in Palestinian security capacity that now mean, actually, in substantial parts around the area, they’re up and around Jenin and down in Nablus, down in Hebron. There is a lot more work now being done by the Palestinian forces and they are then cooperating with their Israeli counterparts in trying to iron out some of the difficulties that there are between them. So this could be done, but the thing that’s going to make the difference is that we take these concrete practical measures on the ground. And I have done this now for 18 months and we have produced a package of measures that I have no doubt if we took and we did, they’d make a difference to the psychology of the average Palestinian living on the West Bank. And what we need from the Israeli government there is something really very simple. We need what Prime Minister Netanyahu has been saying about an economic peace to be taken at its face value, to be worked on and delivered. Now, it’s not a substitute for the political negotiation, of course, but it’s still important. So sometimes people say to me, “Well, you’ve got to tell the Israelis and what is this about an economic peace,” and I say, “No, actually, we do want an economic peace, because we want a political peace, as well.” But if you can get genuine economic change going on the West Bank, it will make a difference, for sure.
Senator Ted Kaufman (D-DE): And what’s the role of the EU in terms of building institutions of the Palestinian state—I mean, the Palestinian areas?
PM Blair: The European Union, for example, has just together a comprehensive set of proposals. I mean, these are proposals that the Palestinian Authority and Prime Minister Fayyad – this is his desire, his wish, it’s his plan, his program, but we have put forward proposals that can support that. And I think the Europeans have an important role to play, not merely in terms of financing the Palestinian Authority, but also in capacity building and institution building, since these institutions are so crucial to statehood.
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