David Miliband
Dar Al-Hayat (Opinion)
December 18, 2008 - 1:00am

Next year needs to be an important year for the Arab-Israeli conflict. Unless we make real progress, the prospect of a two-state solution will slowly - or perhaps fast - slip away. The situation on the ground leaves too many people insecure, in poverty and despair, and is rapidly undermining the political process. While both sides are tiring of the conflict, they are also tiring, faster, of efforts to resolve it.

The basics of an agreement to the Israel-Palestine conflict now command an unparalleled level of consensus. There is no viable alternative to a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders: a democratic and viable state of Palestine must live peacefully alongside an Israel secure from attack and recognised by its neighbours. Jerusalem must be the capital for both, with a just settlement for refugees.
This is not just what the Palestinian President wants; it is also what the Israeli Prime Minister aspires to. It is the position of the both the outgoing and the incoming US administrations, of Europe and the Arab world. Yet our efforts to realise this vision are not succeeding. For many ordinary Palestinians and ordinary Israelis, the endless rounds of negotiations and talks are not delivering improvements on the ground. Israelis continue to feel threatened and under siege. They tried withdrawal from Gaza and Lebanon, but were rewarded only with rocket fire.
Palestinians feel cheated and abused. Their daily experience is of checkpoints, road blocks and harassment. And despite promises made at Annapolis twelve months ago, settlement expansion has increased in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Whilst their leaders talk with Israel, ordinary Palestinians worry they are being robbed of what they are supposed to be talking about.
In Gaza it is even worse: restrictions on access for supplies through the border crossings have left its citizens short of food and medicine. Meanwhile rocket attacks tell Israelis that they cannot gain when they vacate land.
My recent visits to the region have convinced me that only a comprehensive peace can be lasting: a peace with an independent Palestinian state at its core, underpinned by a broader peace between Israel and the whole Arab world. In other words, a 23 state solution: 22 members of the Arab League plus Israel.
For almost seven years the peace process was frozen, but now serious negotiations are underway between Israel and Palestine's leaders. Syria has agreed to establish diplomatic relations with Lebanon. The Turkish government have sponsored negotiations between Damascus and Tel Aviv, and Egypt has been trying to broker Palestinian reconciliation.
That is why I welcome the renewed focus on the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which promises Israel full normalisation of relations with its Arab neighbours in exchange for withdrawal from occupied land. It was then, and still is today, our best hope for peace. It gives the Palestinian Authority the strong regional support it will need to do a deal, and it offers the Israelis what they really crave - stability and security in the region. That is why I welcomed the Arab League's recent letter to US President-elect Obama, reaffirming the Arab States' commitment to the Arab Peace Initiative. It is also why the UK pushed for wider European endorsement of the Arab League's position, with last week's European Council giving its firm backing to a comprehensive regional solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
If we are to realise a two-state solution, Israel must honour its Roadmap commitment on illegal settlements: the recent evacuation of a building in Hebron was a welcome start, but Israel must evacuate all such outposts. The UK is sending a clear message that settlements are a major obstacle to peace: we are currently working to ensure that goods produced in them do not illegally benefit from preferential customs agreements designed to help the Palestinians.
For their part, the Palestinians must refrain from violence and find a way to reunite around negotiations Hamas' continued attacks on civilians and refusal to accept existing PLO commitments, including recognising Israel, divides Palestinian ranks and leads to more suffering for the people of Gaza.
However, a comprehensive peace needs action from more than just the Israelis and Palestinians: it demands active engagement by all Arab League countries. All states in the region must support Palestinian reconciliation as a necessary precursor to a two-state solution; Egypt's role here has been particularly commendable. The Lebanese Government must build a state that can deliver peace and security for its own people, and for its neighbours. Damascus too must play its part in the Arab coalition, working to normalise relations with Israel. That means restraining the militants and curbing the flow of weapons to Hizbollah. The prize for Syria would be significant- gains well beyond Syrian interest in settlement of the Golan Heights.

Throughout 2009 Britain will work with its European allies and the US to push for a comprehensive solution. Over the last few months I've visited not just Israel and the Occupied Territories but also Syria, Lebanon and the UAE with this message. I've had talks in London with the Foreign Ministers of Saudi Arabia and Syria.
Our support is, and will remain, practical as well as political. We are providing humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza - over $30 million for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and others to provide urgently needed food, water and medical assistance.
We are working to strengthen the institutions which will form the backbone of an independent Palestinian state. In 2007 we pledged to give around half a billion dollars in assistance over three years, so that the Palestinian Authority can pay for essential public services. We are also providing training and equipment for the Palestinian civil police, to help them better protect the people of the Palestinian Territories.
In addition, we are helping to develop the Palestinian economy and create jobs. This week's London Business Forum on Trade and Investment in Palestine brought together Palestinian and British business people and will, we hope, increase British commercial investment in the Occupied Territories.
No-one can underestimate the scale of challenge. We are all acutely aware that a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict has eluded us for decades. But next year must see substantial progress if we are to keep alive the prospect of peace. Failure does not bear thinking about. We can make history in 2009, but only if we all have the creativity and vision to make a comprehensive peace a reality.


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