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Middle East Peace Process: the two sides must sit down and negotiate

Foreign Secretary William Hague said that time is running out for a two-state solution to the Middle East Peace Process.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, the Foreign Secretary said:

“Time is running out for a two-state solution. That is one thing everyone agreed on in all the discussions I had at the United Nations last week on the Middle East Peace Process. The events of the Arab Spring have only added to the sense of urgency. Public opinion across the region is increasingly intolerant of the failure to address legitimate Palestinian aspirations in a way that meets Israeli needs. There is growing disenchantment with the failed international efforts since Oslo. At the same time, tensions between Israel and its neighbours are increasing, notably with Turkey and Egypt, and moderate leaders on both sides are under pressure from extremists. Rocket attacks from Gaza on Israel have continued.

All sides bear responsibility for the impasse. The United Kingdom deplores any attempt to delegitimise Israel, but friends of Israel should be concerned about its growing isolation in the international community. Settlement expansion, which is unilateral and illegal under international law, is a big factor in this. It corrodes trust and undermines the basic principle of land for peace. We voted in favour of a resolution at the Security Council in February condemning such settlement activity. For their part, the Palestinians have missed opportunities for peace, imposing further conditions for a return to talks.

President Mahmoud Abbas came to New York stressing that he was not looking for a confrontation. He highlighted the extraordinary progress that Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and the Palestinian Authority have made in building the institutions of statehood. He lodged an application with the UN Security Council for full Palestinian membership of the UN, which is now being considered by a UN membership committee. He did not force a vote in the Security Council, or in the UN General Assembly.

We advised against this application, because while we support the principle of Palestinian statehood, we know that only a negotiated settlement can create a viable state. No resolution at the UN can substitute for the political will necessary if both sides are to come to the negotiating table. Facts on the ground should not be changed other than through negotiations. The people of the region must make their own choices and decide their own future. We cannot impose a solution. This applies as much to the Israelis and Palestinians as it does the revolutions of North Africa. Israelis and Palestinians must sit face to face and agree a lasting peace.

This will require bold, decisive leadership from both sides, as well as painful compromises. The British and EU goal is well established: the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state living in peace and security alongside its neighbour. Israel’s security and the realisation of the Palestinians’ right to statehood are not opposing goals. On the contrary, Israel will be safer when a viable Palestinian state has been achieved.

We have therefore called for both sides to negotiate an agreement on borders, based on June 4, 1967 lines, with equivalent land swaps. This must include security arrangements that respect Palestinian sovereignty but protect Israeli security and prevent the resurgence of terrorism. There must be a just and fair solution for refugees; and agreement on Jerusalem as the future capital of both states. On May 19, President Barack Obama made an important speech saying that for the US, too, the final borders would be based on 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, something that we strongly encouraged.

The British objective is for an urgent return to meaningful negotiations on this basis. We will judge all proposals on how far they advance this. The Quartet statement agreed on Friday by the EU, Russia, the US and UN provides a clear timetable for a conclusion to negotiations. This is a welcome step forward which we hope provides a basis for the two sides to come back to the table. Palestinians should focus on this timetable for talks, rather than setting too many preconditions. For the Israelis, time is slipping away for them to act in their own strategic interest. They need to approach negotiations decisively and with realism, taking bolder steps than Israeli leaders have in recent years.

No vote is imminent in the Security Council while the membership committee considers its recommendation. So far we have not been presented with a detailed proposal on which to take a position. Whether the committee returns the issue to the Security Council, or whether President Abbas decides to turn to the General Assembly, the UK will use its vote in a way that increases the likelihood of a return to meaningful negotiations and supports moderates on both sides.

The historic changes that we have witnessed since January have been marked by calls for more freedom for ordinary people across the region. For Israelis and Palestinians, the changes have brought growing uncertainty and pressure. Palestinians have a greater expectation of statehood; Israel is concerned about what this may mean for its security. For both parties, the best way to deal with this uncertainty is to reach for the certainty of peace.”

Published 25 September 2011