12 February 2010
General Assembly
GA/PAL/1148

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Pivotal Role of Each Permanent Status Issue Assessed as Starting Point


For Talks, at Malta Meeting in Support of Israeli-Palestinian Peace


Peacemaking Can No Longer Ignore Power of Palestine Refugees;

Jerusalem Topping Agenda Could Unlock Other Thorny Issues, Meeting Told


(Received from a UN Information Officer.)


QAWRA, Malta, 12 February ‑‑ Issues of borders, settlements, refugees, Jerusalem, and water dominated discussion this afternoon in the International Meeting in Support of Israeli-Palestinian Peace, as experts made compelling cases for why each was the pivotal permanent status issue around which renewed peace negotiations should coalesce.


The 4.7 million Palestinian refugees registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and the estimated additional 4 million to 6 million in the Palestinian diaspora were a formidable constituency for peace, with a substantial stake in the Israeli-Palestinian future, said the Director of the Agency’s Executive Office in Amman, Jordan.  Excluding their voice disenfranchised them, foregoing a wealth of insights and risking the credibility and sustainability of the peace process.


Palestine refugees ‑‑ their human rights, their aspirations and their concerns ‑‑ were bound to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in complex and profound ways that placed them in a position to influence the realization of a just and lasting solution, he said.  “The Palestine refugee presence is a stark reality, a reality whose significance and power genuine peacemaking efforts can no longer afford to ignore.”  Recognizing and harnessing the refugee constituency was consistent with principle and could also pay handsome dividends in terms of the credibility and efficacy of the search for peace, he said.


During nearly two decades of diplomacy, said researcher and writer Helena Cobban, the assumption had been made that the Jerusalem question was so difficult to resolve that it must be put, along with the refugee issue, at the very end of the agenda, until enough confidence had been built between the leaderships to tackle it.  Today, however, the failure of that approach and its underlying assumptions were evident in the ever-unfolding situation in Jerusalem.


She said that instead of regarding the Jerusalem question as one to be pushed to the bottom of the agenda, perhaps it should be pulled to the top of it.  And a fresh look at the question might unlock other thorny issues.  Jerusalem could play a bridge role between thinking about a one-State or two-State outcome.  If shared in context of a two-State solution, the city could be divided within two States, or undivided, but the whole of it would have some form of special sovereignty status, distinct of Israel or of the State of Palestine.


The residents of Jerusalem could carry their own Israeli or Palestinian citizenship, and come together as a political body in Jerusalem only for the purposes of municipal-metropolitan governance.  And the right to reside in it would be conferred according to a high-level political agreement, she said.


One could imagine a rosy future in which cooperating to assure the good governance of Jerusalem ‑‑ under a corpus separatum model or a redivide-the-city model ‑‑ could be a joint project in which the leaders of the two future States, Israel and Palestine, took great pride, but in the very difficult present circumstances, it was very hard to see how to get from here to there, she said.  Having followed the situation very closely since the 1980s, she was of the sombre opinion that Jerusalem today was a powder keg.  The actions of the settlers, including excavations pushing right under the Old City’s Muslim Quarter, threatened to cause a massive political explosion at any time.  The international peace-and-justice community needed to pay as much attention to the plight of the 260,000 Palestinian Jerusalemites and their holy places and institutions as they did to the plight of the 1.5 million deeply distressed people of Gaza.


Expert presentations in Plenary I on the state of the peace process were also made this afternoon by Geoffrey Aronson, Director of Research and Publications at the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington, D.C., who spoke about settlements.  Also, Samih Abid, Head of the Territorial Border Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization and former Minister for Public Works and Housing of the Palestinian Authority, discussed borders.  Meanwhile, Peter Gubser, former President of American Near East Refugee Aid, discussed water issues.


Discussion


When the discussion continued this afternoon, a representative of the United Arab Emirates stressed that a common position must be found among the Arab Group in order to face up to Israel’s intransigence.  Greater pressure in that regard must be exerted on Washington, on United States President Barack Obama, leading to the peace process which he promised to relaunch.


Another speaker, from Egypt, talked about the peaks and valleys of statehood, noting that a suggestion had been made some years ago that the United States had reached its peak as a nation.  Moreover, nuclear power would lose its impotence in years to come.  Israel had lost its peak, and he advised it to find a solution acceptable to all.


An Egyptian parliamentarian, stressing that settlement of the issue was indispensable for people of the region, said the Palestinians could not bear further failure, and the world could not remain silent in the face of their suffering.  There was no doubt that the policy of settlements was a main problem, if not the major problem, hampering any advancement in the peace process.  The current situation was extremely dangerous in Palestine.  Egypt had played an important diplomatic role to achieve Palestinian reconciliation, to heal the factional fissures.


A representative of parliamentarians of Western Europe said Alon Liel had painted a bleak picture of Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Israeli intransigence, but the division on the Palestinian side played into the hands of those who did not wish to make progress.  Given the weakness and intransigence of both sides, and the division among the Palestinians, outside intervention was needed.  That could come from the Arab League.  But without agreement among Palestinians, there was probably no hope without outside intervention.


A Member of the Jordanian Senate said that perhaps the central question was being ignored, namely, that of occupation.  The United States had had the sole monopoly over the peace process, with no results, and it was exerting pressure on the Europeans so that they would play a partial role, an economic role.  Europe must go beyond that role and cooperate with the international community to help save Israel from itself.


A representative from Tunis said he had been optimistic at the start of the Meeting, but he was very pessimistic now, especially having listened to Mr. Liel.  There was an urgent need to “organize things” within the Palestinian and Arab home, to attract the Europeans to play a more responsible role.


Responding to questions and comments, Sa’eb Erakat said that what Mr. Liel had done was “transparent and honest”.  He had reflected the facts as they were.  The Coalition Government in Israel today was not up to the two-State solution with the 1967 borders.  The Palestinian leadership had reached the same conclusion.  But that did not mean the Palestinians should give up.  He hoped that, sooner or later, the costs of war and conflict would be much higher than the parties were willing to pay.  Once that matrix of interests matured, there would be peace, and peace would be two States on the 1967 borders.  “We’re not going to reinvent the wheel.  This will come.”


He said that the Europeans were there, not to contradict, but to complement the Americans.  And the European Union had 27 foreign policies.  Now, in the region, there was the question of Iran.  The last thing the region needed was another war.  The solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was two States, 1967 borders minus/plus agreed swaps, and democracy in the Arab world.  “You don’t fight ideas with bullets.  Get it.  That’s the truth,” he said.


Mr. Liel said that everything Mr. Erakat said was true.  It looked like the Palestinians had nothing and the Israelis had everything, but Israelis knew they were doomed, too, and dependent on the fate of the Palestinians, he said, adding, “If you will have nothing in the future, we will also have nothing in the future.”  But at the moment, Israelis did not have that feeling, and they were overconfident.


A representative of Cyprus, recalling the previous international meeting on the situation in his own country, said that, regrettably, the Middle East situation remained highly volatile.  He outlined the objectives for a just and viable settlement, pressing vigorously for a relaunch of negotiations.


A representative of Palestine said that apparently Israel considered itself to be above the law; it was promulgating its own laws and procedures, which were in complete conflict with the United Nations Charter, international law and all signed agreements.  Israel depended on two factors:  the weakness of Palestinians and surrounding Arab countries; and the umbrella from the strongest nation in the world, the United States and, to a certain extent, a European umbrella.


Another member of the Egyptian Parliament noted the diligent efforts that had been exerted to counter Israeli racist policies.  Both parties must make concessions.  Israel had to respond to those efforts and stop denying the inalienable rights of Palestinians and “not kick with its feet” all United Nations resolutions.  The Gaza blockade must end, along with settlement construction, and efforts by Egyptians towards Palestinian unity must be heeded.  He warned the Israeli Government that “time is not on our side to keep things hanging”.


Plenary I Continued


Expert presentations resumed in the afternoon on Plenary I, on terms of reference for the permanent status issues ‑‑ borders, Jerusalem, settlements, refugees and water. First to take the floor, on the matter of settlements, was GEOFFREY ARONSON, Director of Research and Publications at the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington, D.C.  Starting with the so-called “bad news”, he said the main operational effect of the decision of 26 November 2009 to impose a moratorium on new settlement construction had been to increase the pace of authorization of new construction above historical averages, including in the areas west and east of the separation barrier.  Upwards of 3,500 units were under construction in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, excluding East Jerusalem.  Adding that, the figure was in the range of 4,000.


He said that the true test of the effectiveness of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision would be felt, if at all, in the period subsequent to the expiration of the moratorium in September 2010, and only then, if it persisted beyond that date, as the Obama Administration intended.


He explained that the decision itself had its legal expression in a series of military orders because the West Bank was still subjected to the orders of the military administration there.  The order itself contained no numerical limitations or baseline for settlement construction.  Thus, the United States had been unsuccessful in getting from the Netanyahu Administration an agreed-upon baseline for determining whether or not there had been infractions.   The order itself, issued in late November 2009, had been modified as the reality of what it suggested had become more apparent.  The net result of the amendments had been to include new classes of construction and return new powers to local authorities, which, in turn, reduced the scope of the order itself.  There was an apparent lack of interest on the part of the settlement community to organize massive violations of the order, which, they had been promised, would lapse in September.


The “less bad news” in terms of the role of settlement freezes historically was that, where Israel had evacuated territories, the settlement freeze idea had played absolutely no role, he said.  The settlements had continued to be built and increased until the day the Israel Defense Force left.  And, in the cases of Sinai and Gaza, what had occurred was a change in the security paradigm embraced by Israel, which did not require the physical presence of its forces or continued maintenance, expansion or existence of settlements.  In both those examples, a decision had been made that Israel would be more secure as a consequence of evacuation and withdrawal.


In looking at the West Bank today, he said there was a sense that the view was now percolating in Washington that once the issues of borders and security was resolved, then the issue of settlements became less important ‑‑ because the security context in which the settlements existed then changed.


On the question of Jerusalem, international affairswriter and researcher HELENA COBBAN said that since Oslo, the assumption had been that the Jerusalem question was so difficult to resolve that it must be put, along with the refugee issue, at the very end of the negotiating agenda, awaiting a time when enough confidence had been built between the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships that they would be ready to tackle it.  Meanwhile, over the years since 1993, the level of confidence between the two had sunk ever lower.  Instead of regarding the Jerusalem question at the bottom of the negotiating agenda, it might be a good idea to pull it to the top instead; a fresh look at the question of Jerusalem might even help to unlock many of the other thorny issues.


She said that some analyses started from the potentially “bridging” circumstances in which the hard-pressed Palestinians of East Jerusalem were forced to live.  Under international law, the Jerusalem Palestinians were residents of the occupied West Bank and were, therefore, just as deserving of the protections of the Fourth Geneva Convention.  At the same time, administrative arrangements imposed on them by the Israeli occupation allowed them considerable freedom to travel inside Israel itself ‑‑ as well as much more freedom to travel between Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank than their counterparts in the rest of the West Bank.  They paid Israeli taxes and had a right to Israeli social benefits, but they were extremely vulnerable to Israeli pressure tactics, including demolition orders and constant threats of having their residency revoked or their tax status investigated.


Turning to how Jerusalem could be play a bridge role between thinking about a one-State or two-State outcome, she said that, if shared in context of a two-State solution, the city could be divided within two States, or undivided, but the whole of it would have some form of special sovereignty status, distinct of Israel or of the State of Palestine.  The residents of Jerusalem could carry their own Israeli or Palestinian citizenship, and come together as a political body in Jerusalem only for the purposes of municipal-metropolitan governance.  The right to reside in it would be conferred according to a high-level political agreement.  The whole of it would be a demilitarized zone.  Crucially, there would be no security boundary running through Jerusalem or through any other portion of this “corpus separatum” model.


One could imagine a rosy future in which cooperating to assure the good governance of Jerusalem ‑‑ under a corpus separatum model or a redivide-the-city model ‑‑ could be a joint project in which the leaders of the two future States, Israel and Palestine, took great pride.  But in the very difficult circumstances that the city’s Palestinians currently faced, it was very hard to see how to get from here to there.  Having followed the situation very closely from the 1980s until today, she was of the sombre opinion that today it was a powder keg.  The actions that the settlers were taking throughout the whole city, including the excavations they were aggressively pushing right under the Old City’s Muslim Quarter, threatened to cause a massive political explosion at any time.  All in the international peace-and-justice community needed to pay as much attention to the plight of the 260,000 Palestinian Jerusalemites and their holy places and institutions as they did to the plight of the 1.5 million deeply distressed people of Gaza, she warned.


Concerning borders, SAMIH ABID, Head of the Territorial and Border Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization and former Minister for Public Works and Housing of the Palestinian Authority, began by explaining the “settlement enterprise”:  there were about 170 settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, with a population of 0.5 million; and there were about 100 outposts with a population of a few thousand, with little difference between settlements and outposts, as they were both illegal and both harmful to Palestinian interests.  Palestinians were denied access, use and enjoyment of land in and around the settlements and they were increasingly segregated in the West Bank, with Israelis subjected to domestic law and Palestinians subjected to Israeli military law.


Israel had maintained that the wall was about security, but, he said, if that were the case, then one would expect its route to match the 1967 border.  Instead, the wall deviated considerably from the Green Line.  Rather than being about security, the wall was an integral part of the settlement enterprise:  only 87 per cent of the settler population would live west of the wall if and when it was completed.  The wall also facilitated future settlement expansion.  In many areas, the route did not match the existing built-up areas of the settlements, but actually matched development plans, which Israel had for future settlement growth.  He detailed settler and bypass roads use, as well as movement restrictions, noting the harmful impacts the settlements infrastructure had on day-to-day and humanitarian needs.  It also had severe consequences for Palestinian long-term interests, especially from a territorial perspective.


He cited the following statistics:  9 per cent of the West Bank between the wall and the 1967 border was de facto annexed to Israel; 8 per cent of the West Bank east of the wall came under exclusive settler control; 28.5 per cent of another area of the West Bank came under Israeli settler and military control, so Palestinians had no meaningful use or access; and 54.5 per cent remained for Palestinian use and access.  Among the Palestinians’ objectives was a physical space, including access to natural resources, to pursue their political, economic, and social development.  The basis of delimitation of that land had to be the 1967 border because, in 1988, the Palestine Liberation Organization relinquished claim to 78 per cent of Palestinians’ historic homeland and decided to focus independence efforts on the remaining 22 per cent.  Additionally, the Palestinian State must be contiguous; and the land must fall under the genuine sovereignty and control of Palestinians.


He also reviewed in detail the elements that needed to be addressed and negotiated to end the conflict, with respect to border issues.  Those related to the 1967 line, the border regime with security and economics, territorial links, maritime issues, settlements, and Jerusalem, among others.


Regarding the refugees, MICHAEL KINGSLEY-NYINAH, Director of the Executive Office of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), said that from the Agency’s vantage point, the need to confront the refugee question was “immediate, immense, and deserving of urgent international attention”.  He explained that refugee movements occurred when the protection and security people should enjoy in their places of origin was disrupted by persecution, armed conflict or other upheaval ‑‑ threatening lives and liberty, and compelling individuals to seek safety in countries other than their own.  Refugees were both a symptom of malaise in the state of human rights in their homelands and a consequence of those protection failures.


He said that refugees were cast adrift from the anchors of home, historical rootedness and belonging.  They lived with a lingering awareness of injury, a psyche of dislocation and an overwhelming longing for that which was lost.  Beyond those human consequences, refugee situations also unsettled the often fragile equilibrium of international relations and triggered issues of regional and international concern.  They also impacted host countries and communities, which had to grapple with the substantial financial and economic effects.  When those and other consequences of conflict-induced refugee movements were considered, the force of the argument that any attempt to resolve a conflict must include attention to the related refugee situation becomes clear.


The connection between effective conflict resolution and addressing refugee issues was global, he said, adding that it had been demonstrated time and again over recent decades in conflicts which had been settled with the help of international mediation.  The Israeli-Palestinian context was no exception.  The human suffering and the sense of loss and dispossession was still strongly felt across Palestine refugee communities.  In common with refugees elsewhere, the unanswered loss of ancestral lands, homes and livelihoods, combined with the limbo of statelessness, had left Palestine refugees with enduring nostalgia and a perpetual sense of being out of place and out of time.  The passing years had left intact a sense of injustice, a demand for acknowledgement and a desire for just and lasting solutions to their plight.


With regard to the place of the refugee issue in the peace process, immediately following the events of 1948, the refugee question was at the forefront of global mediation efforts, he recalled.  From the late 1980s onwards, the tide of attention turned to other aspects of the conflict, as various incarnations of diplomatic activity centred on the goal of two States, but without clarity as to the place of Palestine refugees in that vision.  In the course of that evolution, the refugee issue was assigned to “permanent status negotiations” alongside questions related to Jerusalem, settlements, security arrangements, borders, relations and cooperation with other neighbours, and other issues of common interest.  Those issues were to be addressed by the parties “no later than the beginning of the third year of the interim period”.


In the wake of those developments, permanent status negotiations had been slow to progress, which meant that the refugee issue had been indefinitely held in suspense, he continued.  As a result, the view of refugees in that context too often went unheeded.  That approach served no one’s interest.  The parties and the international community were paying a heavy price for embracing an exclusive approach, which disallowed Palestine refugees their rightful voice in the quest for a peaceful settlement.  “If we appreciate the nexus between conflict resolution and the refugee issue, we can better accept the logic of inverting the conventional wisdom so that the admittedly difficult questions of dispossession and displacement can share centre stage with other pressing items and transitional details,” he said.


UNRWA appealed to the Meeting’s participants and the international community to consider that when revisiting the current approach to negotiations, he said, reaffirming the Agency’s call for a process that was comprehensive in its coverage of the priority issues, including the question of Palestine refugees.  Palestine refugees ‑‑ their human rights, their aspirations and their concerns ‑‑ were bound to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in complex and profound ways that placed them in a position to influence the realization of a just and lasting solution.  “The Palestine refugee presence is a stark reality, a reality whose significant and powerful genuine peacemaking efforts can no longer afford to ignore.”  Recognizing and harnessing the refugee constituency was consistent with principle and could also pay handsome dividends in terms of the credibility and efficacy of the search for peace, he said.


In a review of water issues between Israel and Palestine, PETER GUBSER, former President of American Near East Refugee Aid, discussed the availability and distribution of water; extant water agreements in the Israel-Palestine region; and the overall water supply for Israel and Palestine.  The Middle East was a “water-short region”.  With approximately 3 per cent of the world’s population, it had only about 1 per cent of its renewable water resources.  Israel and Palestine were no exception, he noted.


With the aid of tables displaying data through 1998, he noted the unequal allocation of water between Israel and Palestine.  On a per capita basis, Israel’s water usage was more than four times that of Palestine in 1998.  Due to population growth, today’s figures for absolute per capita water utilization in Palestine would be less than in 1998.  In a special note about Gaza, he said that due to severe population pressures and lack of alternative sources, Gaza was engaging in the over-utilization for water, causing water quality there to become severely degraded.  Very high levels of salinity, nutrients and other contaminants were regularly measured by local authorities and visiting technicians.  If the Gaza Aquifer, which was part of the Coastal Aquifer, was sustained, withdrawal rates would have to be cut by two thirds and alternative water resources would have to be found.


The question was how to divide available water between Israel and Palestine, as the two parties negotiated permanent status issues, he said.  To answer that question, he said it was necessary to look at extant Israeli-Palestinian agreements, international law with respect to the division of water resources, the positions of the two parties, and the need to apply the principle of equitable water allocation on a per capita basis.  On the latter point, he said that the only reasonable, moral, and fair way to share water in the Israeli-Palestinian region was to allocate surface and groundwater resources in an equitable manner on a per capita basis.


He said it was important to note that as the surface water and groundwater of Israel and Palestine were reallocated, that new allocation did not mean that the quantity of water available to Israelis on a per capita basis would diminish.  First, Israel had a command of many technological tools, which it could use to increase its total water supply, such as desalination and wastewater recycling.  Indeed, Israel had been, was, and would be putting those powerful technologies in place to the benefit of its citizens.  Second, the infrastructure to reallocate ground and surface water supplies was not now in place.  Thus, for Palestine to benefit from the reallocation, wells must be drilled, springs improved, water treatment plants built, and pipelines laid.  As those were developed, Israel would be building new and expanding extant projects to increase its overall water supply and make certain that per capita water supplies in Israel did not diminish.


As for increasing water availability, Israel and Palestine could take a number of steps to augment or better utilize their water supplies.  Using those technologies and management systems, the parties could approach the reallocation of surface and ground water in a positive manner, rather than as a zero-sum game.  Conventional technologies included desalination and wastewater recycling.  In terms of conserving water, several steps could be taken to better utilize the resource in the urban context, such as adopting water-saving plumbing fixtures and limiting outdoor uses of water, such as lawn watering.  Water could also be saved in the agriculture sector by, for example, replacing irrigation canals with pipes and using drip or sprinkle rather than flood irrigation.


He said there were additional possibilities for new water, such as the Red Sea-Dead Sea conduit.  For several years, Jordanians, Israelis, and Palestinians had studied that possibility.  The purpose of the conduit would be to desalinate seawater, generate electricity, and refill the rapidly shrinking Dead Sea.  And, over the years, experts and policymakers had floated proposals to convey water from Turkey to countries to the south, such as Israel and Jordan, and possibly others.  The source of water would be the Ceyhan and Seyhan Rivers in Anatolia, which currently flowed untapped into the Mediterranean Sea.  A second proposal was to ship water from Turkey to Israel by sea.  The two countries reportedly signed an agreement to that effect, but to date, the project had not been implemented.


In closing, he said the current allocation of ground and surface water was “highly skewed in favour of Israel and against Palestine”.  Under the principles of international law, the ground and surface waters of the Israel-Palestine region should be reallocated on a per capita and equitable basis.  Technologies were available to augment water supplies and utilize all supplies in more efficient and economic ways.  Using those techniques, the amount of available water might be increased efficiently, so that, as the Palestinian allocation per capita rose, the Israeli allocation per capita did not diminish.


Discussion


Questions and comments in the ensuing exchange concerned, among other topics, the partition plan for Jerusalem, a request for clarification on water rights, and an appeal that some of the proposals made today be conveyed to the decision makers.


Ms. Cobban explained that the partition plan was the last and definitive document in which the United Nations stipulated that there should be a Jewish State and an Arab State in Palestine, so it was the birth certificate for both ‑‑ the foundational document.  As for the corpus separatum ‑‑ perhaps it was flawed.  It might be desirable to keep the city united, however, in the context of a two-State solution; there might be value in trying to do that.  Another value to that was that as the leaderships grappled with the nitty-gritty problems of municipal governance over water and holy sites, they were also creating a model of a shared bi-national State, if it turned out that the two-State solution proved impossible.


She added that she considered important the call for enfranchisement of the Palestine refugees.


Replying to another question, Mr. Kingsley-Nyinah discussed the value of General Assembly resolution 194 on Palestine refugees and the need to implement it across a process of negotiation.


Responding to a comment from a representative of the International Association of Water Law, Mr. Gubser said he hoped that both parties and the United States Government would consider applying international water law.  To the second point ‑‑ that water was a larger issue than just Israel and Palestine ‑‑ he agreed, adding that the World Bank and others always took all essential factors, such as riparians, into effect when allocations of waters were made and adjusted.


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