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Wednesday, 3 December 2003
Page: 23692

Mrs IRWIN (7:39 PM) —As I have noted before in this House, the issue of Middle East peace is not a matter which attracts the attention of many members, nor does it seem to matter much to the government. In reading answers to questions on notice to the Minister for Foreign Affairs in relation to Australia's voting record on resolutions on Palestine and the Middle East adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, I was surprised to learn that since 1996, out of 59 resolutions, Australia has abstained on 35 occasions. This lack of interest is contrasted by the interest in other parts of the world and among private organisations committed to finding peace in the Middle East.

This week in Geneva, with the sponsorship of the Swiss government, Israelis and Palestinians are meeting to discuss proposals for peace in the Middle East. Faced with the stalled road map advocated by US President George Bush and the other quartet partners—the UN, Europe and Russia—Israeli and Palestinian peace activists are meeting to consider peace initiatives from the viewpoint of the people most affected by the conflict. The Geneva accord represents an attempt by Israelis and Palestinians to find a political solution, and that solution will come from the Israelis and Palestinians themselves. It will not be one imposed on them by other nations.

The Geneva initiative is supported by Left Israeli politicians, including Yossi Beilin, Avraham Burg and former Labour Party leader Amram Mitzna. On the Palestinian side, the accord has the tentative backing of Yasser Arafat and the PLO. Arafat has made only a verbal statement that the Palestinian negotiators, who include Palestinian Authority cabinet ministers, have his permission to attend but only as private citizens. He has, however, described the accord as a brave and courageous initiative which opens the door to peace. Arafat has urged Israel to support the accord, but the Sharon government has expressed strong opposition to the initiative.

Two years of secret negotiations have led to the unofficial treaty, which proposes borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state close to the 1967 lines, giving Palestinians almost all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and part of Jerusalem. It divides sovereignty in Jerusalem, giving the Palestinians sovereignty over the Temple Mount and giving Israel the West Wall. It calls for the removal of most settlements but does little to solve the issue of the right of return for Palestinians. The Geneva accord differs from the road map approach in that it tackles the big issues such as borders and Jerusalem, which are left to the end under the road map.

US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher has welcomed the Geneva accord as one that would advance dialogue between the two sides. He sees it as assisting progress with the road map in getting to the point where the big issues can be discussed, saying that it is worth while that people are already considering them. The initiators of the agreement are due to meet with US Secretary of State Colin Powell this Friday to give an update on the details of the plan. Last month, Powell told a delegation representing the Israeli Policy Forum that he supports the initiative because he believes it represents the voice of the Israeli and Palestinian publics.

The initiative is supported by resolutions presented to the United States Senate and House of Representatives. Speaking at the launch of the accord, former US President Jimmy Carter said that in order for peace to descend on the Middle East Palestinians first had to renounce violence and Israelis had to choose between peace with its neighbours and settlements. While only 31 per cent of Israelis support the initiative, they are not greatly outnumbered by the 38 per cent who oppose it. Palestinian concerns on the terms of the right of refugees to return are a major stumbling block. The Geneva accord may not be the final draft of a formal agreement for peace in the Middle East, but it does give us a glimpse of what that agreement may look like, and that can only assist the peace process.