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Tuesday, 8 February 2005
Page: 100


Mr BARRESI (9:15 PM) —This very night Israel and Palestine are hopefully on the cusp of a new era of peace with each other. The world wholeheartedly welcomes the meeting in Cairo between Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The two leaders are gathering to hopefully announce a ceasefire, and bring to a halt the four years of violence that have followed the declaration of the second intifada. Very few moments in modern history have had greater impact than the years in which a lasting peace, or a resolution to an ongoing conflict, is found—1919 and 1945 come to mind. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 signalled the beginning of the end for communism in eastern Europe.

This year offers a golden opportunity for the Middle Eastern region to embrace democracy and work towards a lasting peace. For many years experts of the political landscape in the region have lamented the lack of internal transparency and democratic values within Middle Eastern governments. It is interesting to observe commentators express a sense of defeat when they assess the chances of democracy taking hold and flourishing in the Arab-Islamic world. Over the preceding months, the world has witnessed and assisted fair and democratic elections in countries that have endured decades of either oppressive regimes or spiralling violence. I for one was fortunate enough to witness the Palestinian presidential election of 9 January as head of Australia’s international observers mission.

Much is made of the strong bond between Israel and its Western allies such as Australia. For many years this special bond has included sharing democratic ideals and principles. Western countries such as Australia and the United States have long envisaged that the creation of a second democratic nation would be a breakthrough in the Middle East. Strong, fair and transparent democracies within the Arab world would create a perfect buffer to either the constitutionally manipulated or non-secularly controlled governments throughout the region. The need for progress in Palestine is pressing. Economically the territory is in a bleak state. DFAT figures show that since 1999 GDP per capita has declined 36.3 per cent and average Palestinian incomes have declined by more than a third. Unemployment is rife with a quarter of the work force out of work, while youth unemployment is at a staggering 40 per cent. Hard-fought yet fair election campaigns are necessary to continue sowing the seeds of real democracy in the Middle East. Some argue that the social and political make-up of the region stifles the chances for democracy to take hold. The last month, however, has proved that there is hope and that democracy is an institution that the Palestinian and Iraqi people are only too willing to strive towards.

Democracy and the Islamic world are not mutually exclusive. Modern Turkey has provided its people with a healthy parliamentary democracy for over 75 years. More recently, the Indonesian people elected a new President in a hotly contested ballot. The fact that this democratic enthusiasm is now being embraced in the Middle East is encouraging. The average Palestinian in Gaza and the West Bank will judge the success of the 9 January election according to two factors: self-determination and peace. While moving through the streets of East Jerusalem, Jericho, Ramallah and notorious hot spots such as Nablus and Qalqilya, I witnessed first-hand the zeal amongst many of the l.1 million registered Palestinians as they cast their vote.

President Abbas has two conflicts to manage in Palestine. The first is one largely imposed by the international community, which is to progress the roadmap for peace and ensure that this watershed moment in Palestinian politics can transcend into a turning point towards a lasting peace in the Middle East. The second conflict for the new President is a more internal one: how to create economic prosperity—how to provide jobs, education and health services to a people who see the hundreds of Israeli checkpoints as barriers to having a meaningful and prosperous future.

Recent calls by the President for the Palestinian broadcasting authority to tone down their broadcasts of hatred and the celebration of martyrdom are welcome, as is his move to place Palestinian police in control of notorious hot spots. I cannot stress enough the enormity of what I witnessed during the Palestinian election period. I am proud of our democratic electoral system, and observing the events of 9 January is a reminder that what we take for granted every year somewhere in Australia is a precious right elsewhere in the world. I thank the Minister for Foreign Affairs for the unique opportunity to witness a moment in the world’s democratic history.