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Wednesday, 8 November 2000
Page: 19389

Senator FORSHAW (12:57 PM) —I rise to speak today in the matter of public interest debate on the situation in the Middle East. In early November last year, I attended the meeting of the Socialist Internationale in Paris. It was an historic conference, attended by many leaders of social democratic countries around the world. A few of the leaders who were there were: Tony Blair, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom; Gerhard Schroeder, Chancellor of Germany; and Lionel Jospin, the Prime Minister of France.

But one moment captured the spirit of that very successful conference. It was when Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, former Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat each spoke to the conference on their hopes for a lasting peace in the Middle East. At the end of those speeches, those three men, on the stage, linked arms in the cause of peace. There was a genuine belief at that conference that, after all the years of war, violence terrorism and occupation, the Middle East was closer to peace than ever before.

Like many other members of parliament and people in Australia, I have always had a keen interest in the issues of the Middle East, and I have followed the peace process as closely as possible. It was therefore my pleasure, I suppose I could say, to leave Paris after that conference and travel to the Middle East and visit Israel and Egypt. But the day before I left France, I also had the opportunity on 11 November, Armistice Day, to visit some of the battlefields in the Somme region—particularly to visit the memorials and cemeteries at Villiers-Bretonneux and Le Hamel, where so many Australians lost their lives in World War I. I note, as we all know, that next Saturday is Remembrance Day. That visit to the Somme region was a sobering experience. It truly was a reminder that war is never the answer and that the road to peace is a constant struggle.

In Israel, I had meetings with various representatives of the government and the other political parties in the Knesset, and I also had the opportunity to travel widely throughout the country. My visit also included areas under the control of the Palestinian authority and meetings in Ramallah with their political representatives. I had every opportunity to travel freely, without any restriction.

There is no doubt, as I think anybody who has visited the region knows, that if you walk around Jerusalem and other cities such as Jericho, Bethlehem, Nazareth and Galilee, you actually do feel and breathe the history that goes back over thousands of years. One thing that struck me, particularly in Jerusalem but in the other cities too, was how the people went about their daily lives in an atmosphere of peace and hope. They were particularly looking forward to the new millennium and the celebrations in the Holy Land, which is such an important area for millions of believers in various religions throughout the world. I was particularly conscious of the frustration of the Palestinian people, which was made clear to me in my discussions with Palestinian leaders in Ramallah. But I also found they had great hope that a lasting peace was in sight. They were looking forward to negotiations later that year, even though it was clearly recognised that the key issuethe future status of Jerusalemwas unlikely to be resolved at that series of negotiations.

I left Israel and travelled to Egypt. There I had similar opportunities to meet government officials and to talk to them about the peace process. I might also addI know that Senator Woodley is in the chamberthat part of my trip involved looking at some important agriculture and water supply issues. Water supply is a critical issue for all the countries in this region and, of course, for Australia. I had the opportunity in Egypt to pursue discussions with government representatives and I found that they had an optimistic view of the forthcoming talks. They also expressed their very strong support for the Palestinian cause and voiced their criticisms of Israeli occupation, as they saw it, of the West Bank in particular.

One interesting feature struck me in Egypt. When I first arrived, I was provided with a map of Egypt and all of the countries around it or on the Mediterranean Sea. On the map, where the state of Israel should have been, there was a picture of a bridge in Cairo. All the other surrounding countriesLebanon, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabiawere shown on this map, but Israel was not. It certainly struck me and I think it is significant now in the light of recent events. It was as if the state of Israel did not exist as far as Egypt was concerned, notwithstanding the fact that Egypt and Israel have a peace treaty that goes back some years.

Having visited the Middle East region last year, it is with a great deal of sadness, which I am sure is felt by many others, that I have witnessed the events of the past few weeks as the peace process has come tumbling down. The world has watched the terrible pictures that have been beamed into our living rooms every nightpictures of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy shot and killed, with his father cradling him in his arms; pictures of the mutilated body of an Israeli soldier being thrown from a window and the bloodstained hands of one of his killers raised in triumph; pictures of young kids and adolescents throwing rocks, soldiers returning fire and tanks moving in; and pictures of houses and offices being blown up and the devastating effects of suicide bombers in the crowded alleys of Jerusalem. And then, of course, there is the inevitable funeral, the demonstration that follows and the calls for a continuation of the Holy War.

The world is asking: why has this occurred? What went wrong? If you believe the Palestinians and some media commentators, it all started because opposition leader Ariel Sharon undertook a provocative visit to the Al Haram Al Sharif in Jerusalem where the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque are located. But more recent judgments and analysis have proved that, whilst it was certainly a provocative act, it is too simplistic to put that explanation upon the subsequent events. While the visit was clearly provocative, it was hardly ever acknowledged in the reports that I have read that this same location contains the most holy Jewish site, namely the Temple Mount. Indeed, prior to 1967 when the area was under Arab control, Jews and the followers of other religions were not even allowed to visit the site. Since 1967, it has been open to all denominations that claim a religious affinity with the temples, the mosques, the wall and the other shrines that are there.

Proper analysis of this situation demonstrates that the uprising and demonstrations following the Sharon visit have resulted largely from the campaign being conducted by the extreme supporters of the Palestinian cause to foment violence against Israel. This in turn has played directly into the hands of those extremists within Israelopponents of Barak and Pereswho do not want to see a peace settlement or a Palestinian state. It is sobering to remember that, whilst this has been going on, the government of Israel has been teetering on a knife edge. Israel, of course, is a democratic stateprobably the only democratic state in the regionand the current government holds a very slender majority through a coalition with other parties.

It is disturbing to see children and unarmed citizens throwing rocks and then being shot at by Israeli military forces. Israel has been criticised for its supposed overreaction by using military force, and the weight of numbers of the casualties and deaths has been used to bolster that argument. Whilst moral outrage at these events is understandable, it will not solve the crisis. A proper analysis of the peace process, and particularly of the Camp David talks, demonstrates that Prime Minister Ehud Barak went further than anyone ever imagined in responding to the demands of Arafat and the Palestinians. Indeed, he placed his political future and that of his government at risk by offering the Palestinians huge concessions at Camp David.

The US proposal, which was accepted by Barak, included such proposals as the creation of a Palestinian state with its borders established by mutual agreement, Israeli withdrawal from 95 per cent of the West Bank, civil and administrative autonomy for Palestinians in the old city and adjoining neighbourhoods, religious control of all holy sites and family reunification for Palestinian refugees. Yet Arafat refused to accept it in the end. The opportunity for peace was in his grasp at that time but he refused to accept it. At the end of the day it was Jerusalem or nothing. It is a sad fact that nothing appears to have been learnt from the peace process, for which leaders like Anwar Sadat and Yitzhak Rabin gave their lives. Coincidentally, last Saturday, 4 November, was the fifth anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

Peace is achieved in incremental steps. The Middle East process has been a long series of slow, short steps, just as it has been in Northern Ireland. One can only speculate as to why Arafat said no. But since then we have seen massive crowds in cities in Muslim countries calling for a holy war against Israel. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have called for a return to the days of suicide bombings. The constant call is not just for a Palestinian homeland or a return to the pre-1967 borders; it is a chant for the destruction of Israel itself.

Israel has lived with this threat ever since its creation by the United Nations in 1948. It has survived invasions and terrorism throughout its 52-year existence. It survived the Iraqi missiles during the Gulf War when Israel was not even involved in the conflict. That is why we are witnessing such a forceful response from the Israeli authorities. They can only see the struggle as one of survival, just as many Palestinians now believe that the hope of an independent state with Jerusalem as the capital can only be achieved by driving Israelis into the sea.

One by-product of this conflict that has been particularly disturbing was the violent scenes that occurred when Palestinian supporters marched in Sydney a few weekends ago. I thought I would never see the day when a violent demonstration would occur in Australia with the participants screaming `Death to the Jews'. Since then there have been reports of violent attacks on synagogues and homes in Sydney. These events must be condemned in the strongest terms.

Fortunately in recent days we have seen some lessening of the violence in the Middle East and attempts to get the peace process back on track. Significantly, it has been former Prime Minister Shimon Peres who has assisted in that development. Hopefully, the pieces can be put back together because ultimately it is the only way in which the Palestinians can achieve their homeland and Israel can live in secure peace. Ultimately, Arafat, Prime Minister Barak and Shimon Peres need to link arms once again, just as they did in Paris last November.