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Diplomats Converge on Israel in Push for Truce

John Bruton
John Bruton (European Union)

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John Bruton
EU Ambassador to the U.S.
Monday, January 5, 2009; 2:00 PM

European envoys intensified talks on Monday in hopes of brokering a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, but Israel pressed ahead with its military operations as casualties mounted.

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Video: Israeli Forces Push Into Gaza Strip (AP, Jan. 4)

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni rejected a European proposal to install an international monitoring team in Gaza to help maintain a cease-fire. "I don't see how this can help," she told a press conference in Jerusalem before a meeting with diplomats from the European Union.

John Bruton, European Union ambassador to the U.S., was online Monday, Jan. 5, at 2 p.m. ET to brief on the latest information from the region and what role diplomacy can play in the conflict.

A transcript follows.

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John Bruton: This is Ambassador John Bruton. I am looking forward to taking your questions on the situation in the Middle East and the European Union's involvement.

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Rockville, Md.: Dear Mr. Bruton, Though I am no fan of John Bolton or his allies in the Bush administration, I read with interest his Washington Post op-ed that proposed a "three-state solution" -- that is, essentially putting Gaza under Egyptian authority and the West Bank under Jordanian authority. While this sounds nearly impossible, its attraction is the creation of entities that are economically viable (unlike the current Palestinian territories) and have governments that can effectively exercise authority and have international legitimacy. Has such a move ever been considered as a possibility? How else could these Palestinian territorial entities be rendered economically-viable? They appear to have few solid resources upon which to draw despite large populations. Thank you.

washingtonpost.com: The Three-State Option (Post, Jan. 5)

John Bruton: Historical experience suggests that people can only be successfully integrated into a state if both they and the state receiving them are willing to accept that. Otherwise one is simply creating a new source of conflict. The US administration, of which Mr. Bolton was a member, has been pursuing the goal of two states, Israel and a Palestinian State, living in peace and security together. This approach has been accepted in principle by Israel and the Palestinian authority as well as by the Arab world more generally. Mr. Bolton's suggestion is not likely to be accepted by any of these parties. Therefore, it does not pass the test of political realism.

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Centreville, Va.: Do you think the Israeli response to Hamas-fired rockets is justifiable in terms of the proportion of death and destruction that have been inflicted on the Palestinian people of Gaza?

John Bruton: Clearly, in this as in previous conflicts between Israel and Palestinians, the number of Palestinians killed or wounded is much greater than the number of Israeli casualties. But Israel does have a right, as any state has, to defend itself. The question Israel must ask itself is whether military methods of this kind are solving a short-term problem at the expense of creating a much bigger long-term one.

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Arlington, Va.: Being a cynic, I'm skeptical that the European diplomats coming to Israel to help negotiate a truce truly care about Israel and its right to exist. Do the Europeans really care about the Palestinians living in Gaza and in refugee camps? If so, what care is being furnished to them? What take-aways do these diplomats hope to accomplish at the table?

John Bruton: The European Union, it citizens and its Member States, care deeply about the living conditions of the people living in both Gaza, the West Bank and the large Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon that have been in existence for many, many years. The living conditions of Palestinians in these locations have deteriorated very substantially, in particular in Gaza. In the decade between 1988 and 2008 almost any socio-economic indicator for the Palestinian people has declined. Per capita GDP has fallen dramatically, an experience that few in the Western world have had to live with in their life times. This situation has been aggravated by the severe restrictions on economic activity in the West Bank and Gaza imposed by security restrictions Israel has felt it necessary to impose, including multiple check points, border closings, and the construction of a barrier and other defensive installations on land previously used by Palestinians for productive purposes.

John Bruton: In 2008, we have delivered record levels of assistance to the Palestinians. The Palestinians have received more than 1.5 billion dollars in direct financial assistance. The largest contributor was the European Commission which provided more than 700 million dollars.

John Bruton: A regrettable feature of current military action is that some of the of the civilian infrastructure on which EU tax payer money has been spent are in the course of being destroyed. Not withstanding that, the European Union will be willing to provide further assistance in the future. Today we have released an additional USD three million in emergency assistance to Gaza.

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Washington, D.C.: Dear Ambassador Bruton,

This particular phase of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a definite start: Hamas's renunciation of the agreed upon cease-fire and then rocket attacks on Israel. Will the EU insist that Hamas take responsibility for this disaster?

Thank you for consideration of my question.

John Bruton: This is true of this particular phase, so defined. But this is not the whole story. The restrictions placed on traffic in and out of Gaza by Israel were already very severe before Hamas ended its period of relative non-violence. Part of the difficulty is that the Palestinian residents of Gaza do not see a positive vision of their future being outlined for them by anyone and this tends to lead them to be less vigorous than they ought to be in opposing violence coming from within their midst whether from Hamas or the other militias active in Gaza.

Unfortunately, indirect responsibility for this disaster is widely shared.

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Alexandria, Va.: It's very depressing to see the EU and the Arab world constantly singling out Israel. No other nation in the world gets constantly attacked by terrorists and is told to just let its people die or give in to the demands. How can you ask Israel to cease-fire, without guaranteeing a similar promise from Hamas?

John Bruton: It is wrong to suggest that the EU is "constantly singling out Israel". The EU has since 2006 supported the position taken by both the United States and Israel that there should be no contact with Hamas, notwithstanding its electoral victory, until it has recognized Israel's right to exist, renounced armed struggle and adhered to previous Israel/PLO agreements. In light of experience in other peace processes, these were tough conditions. So far Hamas has not met them. It is open to question whether the current attacks in Gaza will make it any more likely that they will.

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Tampa, Fla.: I don't see why Israel should care about the EU. The U.S. backs Israel fully, and gives it a blank check. All the EU can do is cut economic ties, and it refuses to take even that step. Even as Israel continued its blockade of Gaza while Hamas observed its cease- fire, the EU went on strengthening its ties with Israel.

I know Israel has a very, very strong lobby here in the U.S. It looks like its EU lobby is almost as strong.

Will the EU reconsider its relationship with Israel in light of Israel's actions in Gaza? Or will this be replay of Lebanon 2006?

John Bruton: It is important to be realistic about what outside actors can achieve. At the end of the day, Israelis and Palestinians and their leaders have to come to the conclusion that taking rapid steps to implement a realistic two-state solution is in their interests. Both of them will have to take big risks if this is to happen, and will have to deal with dissent among their own people. But the truth is that the long-term risks of not proceeding rapidly to agree and implement a two-state solution are probably immeasurably greater than the risks of doing something.

European Union Member States are the principal market for Israeli exports, so clearly Israel has an interest in harmonious relations. A sign of this is the fact that Israel recently requested an upgrading of its bilateral relations with the EU. In the context of the discussions on this, the EU will continue to raise relevant concerns with Israel, including in regard to possible breaches of humanitarian law, and to illegal settlement activity in territory that is not part of Israel.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Ambassador, you just said "Part of the difficulty is that the Palestinian residents of Gaza do not see a positive vision of their future being outlined for them by anyone." Isn't that the Palestinians' responsibility in the first instance? Haven't they failed to say "this is what we want, this is what we can live with?"

John Bruton: This is true as far as it goes. There are divided opinions among Palestinians. A majority favors a two-state solution. Others favor a single entity encompassing all of former Palestine. But divisions about long-term goals are also found in Israel. Many Israelis are opposed to settlements in the territory that might eventually form part of a Palestinian state if there is to be a two-state solution. On the other hand, there has in fact been a dramatic increase in settlements by Israelis in the territory that would constitute the territory of a Palestinian state if there is to be one. In 1993 there were 110,900 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and by 2006 this had grown to 255,600, an increase of 130% which is much faster than the rate of population growth in Israel itself.

It is also the case that Palestinians are not fully masters of their own destiny. They do not control their own territory. They do not have a state. Their economic conditions have dramatically worsened in recent years. All this makes it more difficult for them to have a mature discussion about their own long-term interests.

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Detroit, Mich.: It seems to me that there will be no lasting peace unless and until the other Arab states step up to their responsibility to support a non-militant Palestinian state and one that respects Israel's right to exist. What is the EU doing to engage at least the moderate Arab states to live up to this responsibility?

John Bruton: As demonstrated by repeated EU visits to the region, including at the present time, we are strongly encouraging inter-Palestinian reconciliation and strongly supporting the mediation efforts of Egypt and the Arab League. The Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 is a crucial basis for the comprehensive approach that is needed to deal with the Israeli conflict. It offers Israel full recognition by all Arab states as part of the implementation of a two-state solution. We hope that this initiative will be promoted vigorously in the coming months by all interested parties, including the incoming Administration in the United States. The time available to make a two-state solution a reality is limited, as a lack of urgency will lead to a further radicalization of opinion on both sides.

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Chicago Ill.: Thank you for taking questions. From my perspective, the greatest impediment to peace has been the 60-year Arab hostility to Israel. I have always seen Israel as a nation that would like to make peace with its neighbors if at all possible. Terror attacks, wars, and angry rhetoric have made that difficult or impossible except in a few isolated cases. The U.S. is as even-handed as it can be given the facts on the ground.

If you were advising Israel, what would you have them do differently? I'm not asking about generalized platitudes like "justice for the Palestinians," I'm talking actual concrete steps. How do they get Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and the other players in the region to act constructively? How does Israel secure its future and solve this endless problem? Thanks.

John Bruton: There are different historical interpretations of what happened 60 years ago. Arabs have one view and Israelis have another. I do not think it is really possible to single out any one side as being the "greatest impediment to peace". In fact, such a starting point is likely to prevent any productive dialogue.

My own experience, as someone who contributed to the successful peace process in Ireland, is that one has to acknowledge and respect different historical perspectives in a formal way. This acknowledgement by the other side can often be helpful in removing emotional barriers to negotiation. My experience would also suggest to me that setting as pre-conditions to negotiations goals that you would hope would be the outcome of negotiation can often mean that negotiations simple do not take place.

It is important, as the questioner acknowledges, to encourage other players in the region to become constructively involved. Saudi Arabia has already been a principle sponsor of the Arab Peace Initiative. The possibility of a peace agreement with Syria is being actively explored. It is to be hoped that the current action in Gaza does not prevent a continuance of the discussions with Syria. A comprehensive approach needs to be taken involving Iran in a more constructive role in the region and the EU has been working intensively on this for a number of years.

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Alexandria, Va.: Is a two-state solution a reasonable goal? Would a hypothetical Palestinian state be economically viable? Would the inhabitants of such a state be willing to accept Israel and its right to exist or would they simply be an enemy waiting for the right moment to strike?

John Bruton: A Palestinian State will only work if it accepts Israel and its right to exist. That is a fully achievable goal.

A successful Palestinian state would need to be able to export freely to Israel. Even now up to 85 percent of the GDP of the West Bank is derived from exports to Israel. Were peace to come about, it would lead to dramatic improvements in Palestinian living standards based on exports to Israel and the rest of the world. In economic terms, the Palestinians are the great losers in the continuing conflict.

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Washington, D.C.: Does the UN need to step in?

John Bruton: A UN role is very important. Israel came into existence by virtue of a UN Resolution. UN agencies are providing vital assistance to Palestinian refugees. The UN Security Council will need to provide a framework for an eventual settlement. But the first responsibility lies with the parties themselves.

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John Bruton: Thanks to all participants in this discussion.

John Bruton

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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