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Wednesday, 14 December 1988
Page: 4165

Senator JONES —My question is directed to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. Has the Minister been informed of the terms of the statement made yesterday by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) Chairman, Yasser Arafat, to the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in Geneva on the subject of the Middle East? What is the Government's assessment of that statement?

Senator GARETH EVANS —PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat's speech at the United Nations meeting in Geneva yesterday maintains the more positive trend in the PLO position on the Middle East peace process evident in the Palestine National Council (PNC) in Algiers last month. The centrepiece of the Arafat statement was a three-point peace initiative with the following elements: first, the convening under UN supervision of a preparatory committee for an international conference; secondly, a proposal for occupied Palestinian land to be placed under temporary UN supervision and international forces deployed there to supervise an Israeli withdrawal; and, thirdly, a comprehensive settlement to be agreed among all the parties concerned in the Arab-Israeli conflict, including the state of Palestine, Israel and other neighbours on the basis of resolutions 242 and 338.

The text of Arafat's statement in Geneva goes beyond the declarations of the PNC meeting in Algiers in some important respects, but it also falls some way short of the joint statement issued following his meeting with American Jewish figures in Stockholm last week. On the crucial question of Israel's right to exist, Arafat reaffirmed the PLO's acceptance of UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 as the basis for an international conference on the Middle East, and did so, moreover, in language which did not in the same breath refer to other, less acceptable, UN resolutions. He referred to Israel by name as one of the parties to be involved in a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict and also, in a departure from the printed text, referred to a settlement which would guarantee `the right to exist in peace and security to all parties to the conflict'. He did not go as far as he did in the Stockholm statement of 7 December, which said that the PNC `accepted the existence of Israel as a state in the region'.

As to the question of terrorism, although there was a repetition in the Geneva statement of the relevant elements of the Stockholm statement-that is to say, a rejection of terrorism in all its forms, including state terrorism-that continued to be qualified, as was the PNC statement, by references to the legitimacy of armed struggle in the pursuit of political objectives. In particular, Arafat saluted, in his own words, former freedom fighters present at the UN Assembly who had at one time been considered terrorists by their oppressors.

Despite these qualifications, it has to be said that the Arafat speech in Geneva does provide a basis for the kind of step by step confidence building measures and political responses which are essential to the ultimate achievement of a comprehensive Middle East settlement. Australia's position, as it has been articulated by the Prime Minister since early 1987, has long been one of support for an international conference to address in a comprehensive way the whole Arab-Israeli problem.

We have also taken the view that such a conference can realistically occur only on the basis of mutual recognition by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation of each other, which would require, as we have said, that the PLO recognise Israel's right to exist within secure and internationally recognised borders, accept resolutions 242 and 338 as the basis for any settlement and reject unequivocally the use of terror, and accept the process of negotiation. If these conditions have still not been satisfied in every last respect, it is nonetheless clear that they are very much closer to being completely satisfied than was the case just a few weeks ago. From any objective perspective, a major shift in the Palestinian position has occurred.

In the Australian Government's judgment, the PLO has gone sufficiently far to warrant a more constructive and positive response than has been forthcoming from Israel and the United States. We are not naive enough to believe that there are no elements of public relations in the stance that the PLO has now taken, but in our judgment it would be wrong simply to dismiss the Palestinian initiative as no more than that. If the moderate forces within the PLO, now represented by Arafat, are not encouraged and reinforced by appropriate responses from the principal parties, the risk of a return to dominance of the remaining extremists within the PLO umbrella is all too starkly apparent. Of course, there are risks involved for Israel in any step down the settlement path, but that country has been prepared to take enormous risks in the past to secure its viability and integrity. We simply hope that the Israeli Government will share our judgment that there are greater risks inherent in standing back now from the peace process than in participating actively in it.