The search for peace in the Middle East is, once again, at a crossroads. Negotiations on the two-state solution have stalled. The region, meanwhile, is threatened by violent confrontation and extremism, potentially throwing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict into greater turmoil. This difficult landscape for negotiation makes it even more important to continue international efforts to help bring about a settlement, especially as we know the enormous human costs of missed opportunities and past failed peace initiatives.
In such difficult times, leadership and vision are essential. A new Israeli Government has now been formed. The UN Secretary-General stands ready to work with all in order to encourage a return to negotiations, on the basis of an agreed framework. He has also strongly urged the incoming Government not only to reaffirm Israel’s commitment to the two-state solution, but also to take credible steps to foster an environment conducive to a return to meaningful negotiations. This should, first and foremost, include a freeze of settlement activity. Recent settlement announcements by Israeli authorities are, therefore, alarming. Settlements are illegal under international law and send the wrong signal to the Palestinians and the international community about Israel’s intentions. Continued security cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli authorities remains a cornerstone of a peaceful resolution.
On the Palestinian side, unity is essential for the viability of any peace agreement. The United Nations has consistently supported efforts towards Palestinian unity within the framework of the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s commitments, which include the recognition of the right of the State of Israel to exist and the renunciation of terrorism and violence. The forming of the Palestinian Government of National Consensus in June of last year, opened the way for unity at long last. This was an important first step in what is likely to be a long and complicated process. Almost one year later, the consensus Government has yet to assume full responsibility in Gaza, including at border crossings. Both sides, while calling for elections, have been unwilling to take the political risks necessary to make progress on the difficult issues at hand.
The severity of extreme poverty and continuous conflict has placed a massive toll on the people of Gaza. Enormous financial challenges and the slow pace of reconstruction in Gaza exacerbate an already fragile security situation. Unemployment is massive, estimated by the World Bank at 43 per cent, and at 60 per cent among Gaza’s youth. Public sector employees remain unpaid. The virtual closure of the border crossings stifles trade and suffocates its people. Such realities feed frustration and tension in a vicious cycle that undermines the path to peace.
While the UN continues to play a key role in assisting people in need – including through UNRWA, for example, which provides assistance and protection in very difficult circumstances for some 5 million registered Palestine refugees – what is needed is a lasting solution to this long-standing conflict.
In order to achieve this long-desired goal, both sides must make difficult choices – to refuse to be swayed by extremist elements on either side, to embrace cooperation rather than conflict, to realise that lasting peace depends on agreeing viable arrangements for coexistence that will allow for the full development of the peoples within the two states.
We must turn back from the cycle of violence and confrontation before it’s too late. We at the United Nations believe there is still time for both sides to show the commitment and courage necessary to chart a viable course towards a better future. That time is now.
The author is United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs.