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Wednesday, 24 August 1994
Page: 293

(Question No. 1492)

Senator Jones asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs, upon notice, on 23 June 1994:

  (1) Does the Federal Government consider the continuing attacks by Israeli jet aircraft on Hizbollah bases in South Lebanon will delay peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) on Palestinian self-rule areas.

  (2) What advice has the Australian Government received from Israel and the PLO on the possibility of a successful conclusion of the peace process.

  (3) Has the Australian Government been approached by the PLO to consider allocation of finance, personnel and resources for direct humanitarian and construction projects in the self-rule areas.

  (4) Will the Australian Government have any diplomatic relationship with the Palestinian self-rule authority.

Senator Gareth Evans —The answer to the honourable senator's question is as follows:

  (1) Fortunately, Israeli air attacks on Hizbollah bases in southern Lebanon do not appear to have affected negotiations between Israel and the PLO on the question of Palestinian self-rule. The signing on 4 May 1994 of the agreement on the transfer of Gaza and Jericho to Palestinian self-rule, the return of the PLO Chairman, Yasser Arafat, to the self rule area, and the commencement of talks on the extension of self-rule in the West Bank all occurred against a backdrop of intermittent Israeli military action against Hizbollah in Lebanon. (As of 11 July, there had been 22 Israeli air raids against Lebanon in 1994.) Earlier, the Israeli ground and air assault against Lebanese territory in July 1993 failed to prevent the negotiating breakthrough that resulted, two months later, in the historic Declaration of Principles. The Israel-PLO talks have indeed proved remarkably resilient.

  Australia, nevertheless, deplores the continuing Israeli violations of Lebanon's sovereignty—especially Israel's self-declared `security zone' in southern Lebanon, which flouts UN Security Council Resolution 425—just as it deplores Hizbollah's attacks on targets in Israel. It is the Government's firm belief that the long-term stability of Lebanon, and an end to the violence in southern Lebanon, are dependent upon the conclusion of a comprehensive peace settlement in the region, including peace treaties between Israel and Syria, and Israel and Lebanon.

  I should add that the Government condemns in the strongest possible terms the recent terrorist attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets in Buenos Aires and London. These attacks underline the importance of achieving a comprehensive settlement in the Middle East as soon as possible.

  (2) The Government receives regular advice from Israel and the PLO on their respective expectations of the peace process. Naturally, they frequently hold differing views of the same event or situation, since they are, after all, locked in a complex negotiating process—one in which each side must also deal with its own internal disagreements over strategies and goals. In a sense, it is unrealistic to expect the two parties to have fully-developed, and publicly-aired views of the ultimate outcome of the peace process. We are still at the beginning of the interim phase, which is scheduled to end no later than May 1996. When this phase ends, talks on difficult issues affecting the permanent status of Gaza and the West Bank are scheduled to begin. For the time being, both sides are moving ahead warily, and the experience of the self-rule experiment will obviously shape their expectations of the future.

  It can, however, be said that the views of Israel and the PLO on some issues have of late grown a little closer. The leaders on both sides are aware of the obstacles in the path of the successful implementation (and extension) of Palestinian self-rule; and they are both doing all they can to maintain the negotiating momentum. For Israel, the most important test of the Palestinians' credibility as a negotiating partner is their ability to maintain public security, and to adhere to the spirit of their agreements with Israel. For the PLO, Israel's willingness to allow the extension of Palestinian self-rule, and not to stifle the new Authority's powers (or further erode its credibility), is critical. At the moment, both sides are guardedly optimistic—even if they disagree over the desirability or inevitability of a Palestinian state, for example. We can only hope further progress fuels their optimism. But it would be foolish to ignore the potential for differences as it would be to assume that such differences are unbridgeable.

  Progress has also been made in several of the other tracks. The joint declaration between Israel and Jordan, signed in Washington on 25 July, effectively ended the state of belligerence between the two countries. Israel and Jordan have committed themselves to negotiate the early conclusion of a peace agreement and to take a series of practical steps to normalise their relations and embark on a new era of cooperation. The Australian Government certainly hopes that the breakthrough in the Israel/Jordanian track will breathe new life in the other negotiating tracks of the peace process. In fact, the Israel/Syrian track is now showing signs of renewed progress following US Secretary of State Christopher's recent visit to the region. The United States is playing a role as an active intermediary between the two parties who have begun to outline to each other their views on issues of substance.

  (3) In the course of regular contacts with the PLO, Australia has indeed received requests that we do more to channel our official assistance to the occupied territories directly through the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction (PECDAR), the PLO's own development arm. As you know, there is an urgent need for financial assistance to, and reconstruction in, the self-rule areas. Last October, Australia agreed to contribute $15 million over three years towards economic development in the occupied territories. But in view of the critical importance of start-up funding for the new Authority, we have decided to provide over $1 million in immediate cash assistance through a World Bank trust fund.

  I should add that the PLO has expressed itself satisfied with our existing plans to contribute a large part of the $15 million to UNRWA, the importance of whose work all sides acknowledge, and part to Australian NGOs working in the region.

  (4) The Australian Government will, of course, maintain contact with the Palestinian Authority (and with the Palestinian Council, once that is elected) but it cannot conduct a diplomatic relationship with any Palestinian governing authority until such time as that authority represents a state. That is because Australia recognises states, not governments, and there is at present no Palestinian state or `State of Palestine' in existence. The establishment of such a state may well be the outcome of the current peace process, but it would be premature to anticipate that outcome at this stage.

  Our current policy towards the PLO is based on the same logic. The PLO is the representative of the Palestinian people, and we recognise it as such; but we recognise no Palestinian state of which the PLO can be said to be the government. We can only conduct diplomatic relations with the government of a Palestinian state.