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Tuesday, 31 August 1993
Page: 629


Senator CARR —My question is directed to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. The minister would be aware of press reports of direct talks between the government of Israel and the PLO and that Israel and the PLO are close to an agreement. What is the Australian government's assessment of the prospect for progress in the Middle East peace process?


Senator GARETH EVANS —The government very warmly welcomes the reports that the Israelis and the Palestinians may be very close to agreement on a declaration of principles which would provide for the early transfer of power to Palestinian authority in much of the territory of the West Bank as well as the whole of Gaza.

   While the agreement is yet to be formalised and a number of further details obviously are going to need to be elaborated, we do understand that the arrangements for the transfer of power may include, firstly, the transfer of authority from the Israeli civil administration to Palestinian control in Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho; secondly, redeployment of the Israeli defence forces away from Palestinian population centres; thirdly, the principle of early empowerment being applied to most of the area of the West Bank, not just Jericho, providing initially for transfer of authority in the fields of health, education, welfare, tourism and culture; and, finally, elections for a Palestinian council to administer self-rule to be held at least nine months after the declaration of principles is implemented.

  The issue of Jerusalem is expected to be placed on the agenda explicitly for negotiations on permanent status of the occupied territories, which will commence between two and three years after the signing of the declaration of principles. That is, of course, in accordance with the understandings reached at Madrid in 1991. According to these reports, there is also an expectation that Israel may announce its recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, the PLO, which is a rather breathtaking breakthrough.

  It is clear that there are now prospects for substantial movement in this forthcoming 11th round of bilateral negotiations commencing in Washington this week. A breakthrough in the Israel-Palestinian track of this order may also, of course, prove extremely useful in stimulating progress in the other bilateral tracks involving Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. We recognise that there are many groups in Israel, among the Palestinians and elsewhere, who are opposed to the kind of agreement that now appears in prospect.

  There is obviously a long road ahead before a just and lasting peace can be secured in the Middle East, but certainly these reports suggest that the peace process is at last producing the seeds of a broadly acceptable agreement. I hope those groups on both sides of the argument who are opposed to or indicating hostility to this are large minded enough and large spirited enough to appreciate the historical opportunity that is now before people in the region, for the first time, really, to secure a lasting peace.