NZ can make a difference in the Middle East

MURRAY MCCULLY FOREIGN AFFAIRS MINISTER
Last updated 08:11 16/05/2012

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OPINION: My visit to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory last week came in the midst of an extraordinary moment in Israeli politics.

The day I met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, his focus, and that of the Israeli media, was firmly on the announcement of a September 4 election, a move that would have effectively scuppered the prospect of serious, direct discussions with the Palestinians in the short term.

But within 24 hours everything had changed: the main opposition party, Kadima, and its new leader, Shaul Mofaz, facing a looming disaster in the polls, agreed to join the government. Elections would be deferred until 2013, providing a 15-month window for progress.

While it cannot be said that this unique turn of events will in itself open the door to peace with the Palestinians, it is certainly to be hoped that the prime minister will take advantage of the broad coalition he now enjoys - 94 seats in the 120-seat Knesset - and a strengthened mandate to make the necessary compromises for progress.

The day before meeting Mr Netanyahu, I travelled across to Ramallah, 30 minutes' drive from Jerusalem, to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his prime minister, Salaam Fayyad. My conversations confirmed to me that there is an acute need to promote direct negotiations between the two sides, and for this to happen in the window before the UN General Assembly in September this year, where it is likely that we will see a UN resolution on some form of Palestinian statehood if no progress is made in talks before then.

The New Zealand Government has made it clear that it is open to voting for such a resolution depending on the actual words it contains and the intent behind them, but we do not believe, and nor does anyone else, that such a resolution would bring us closer to an actual answer to the Palestinian question.

Why, readers might ask, does this have any relevance to New Zealand? The answer is simple: for decades the Palestinian issue has been the fuse that threatens to ignite wider conflict in the Middle East and beyond.

Issues around the holy places in Jerusalem, borders, settlements, access to resources such as water, and the right of return are all deeply emotive to every Arab person living in the region and to Muslims worldwide. Differences of view over each of these issues inspire much of the radical behaviour that blights everyday life in these countries.

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Remove the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the wider region can focus on the other contentious issues feeding upon it.

ONE such issue has been the tension arising from the Iranian nuclear programme. New Zealand, along with the rest of the international community, has repeatedly called upon Tehran to address the confidence deficit over its nuclear programme.

There is another reason for us to take a special interest, something which has less to do with New Zealand's direct trade and economic interests and more to do with our hard-earned reputation as a country that takes its responsibility for global peace and security seriously. New Zealand is one of a handful of countries seen as trusted and credible by both sides in this particular conflict. New Zealand's support for various UN resolutions and other initiatives is highly valued and much sought- after.

New Zealand can undertake tasks in sensitive areas that require the trust and co-operation of both sides, an example being the UN mine clearance project in the West Bank, to which New Zealand contributes $2.8 million as the primary donor. Last week I met the two New Zealanders running that project and it became clear to me that it is not only our world- class expertise in de-mining that is essential there, but our ability to build consensus with all players which is ensuring that the work can actually be done.

It is this same sense of being a constructive and fair player that has seen New Zealand hold a longstanding and important role in the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) peacekeeping mission in the Sinai since 1982. A New Zealand general currently leads the MFO - which includes a sizeable contingent of New Zealand troops - and this mission makes a reliable contribution to the maintenance of peace between Israel and Egypt, something that would have been regarded as fanciful 40 years ago.

New Zealand has also committed peacekeepers to the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO), which has supervised the ceasefire and peace agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbours since 1954.

New Zealand strongly supports a two-state solution to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. This is clearly the only just and sustainable outcome.

It is true that New Zealand is not a major power in that region. We are at a considerable geographical distance from the neighbourhood and we do not have deeply ingrained cultural or historical ties with either party. Yet it is exactly these factors, combined with our balanced and respected positions, that make New Zealand almost uniquely placed to be able to make a quietly constructive contribution towards the achievement of a two-state solution.

We will continue to take practical measures to promote peace, we will maintain an open dialogue with both sides, and we will stand ready together with other moderate, like-minded countries to do what is needed to support the establishment of a long-overdue peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

- The Dominion Post

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