NEW YORK: The US under President Joe Biden supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “in which Israel lives in peace and security alongside a viable Palestinian state,” the UN Security Council heard on Tuesday.
“This vision, (though) under serious stress, remains the best way to ensure Israel’s future as a democratic and Jewish state, while upholding the Palestinian people’s legitimate aspirations for a state of their own and to live with dignity and security,” said Richard Mills, the acting US ambassador to the UN.
In an effort to advance the two-state vision, Mills said the Biden administration will restore “credible US engagement” with Palestinians and Israelis alike.
“President Biden has been clear that he intends to restore US assistance programs that support economic development and humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people, and to take steps to reopen diplomatic relations that were closed by the last US administration,” said Mills.
His comments came as the Security Council convened at a ministerial level to discuss the stalling Middle East peace process. While Washington is expected to maintain staunch support for the Israelis, Mills said the new administration “will urge Israel’s government and the Palestinian Authority to avoid unilateral steps that make a two-state solution more difficult, such as annexation of territory, settlement activity, demolitions, and incitement to violence.”
He also expressed hope that recent normalization-of-relations agreements between Israel and a number of Arab states, including the UAE and Bahrain, “can proceed in a way that unlocks new possibilities to advance a two-state solution.” He urged more countries to follow suit.
In his first briefing to the council, Tor Wennesland, the UN’s new special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, hailed as a “crucial step toward unity” the announcement this month by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of plans to hold parliamentary and presidential elections beginning in May.
Wennesland also praised changes to election laws that raise the quotas for female representation, and called on Palestinian authorities “to take further steps to facilitate, strengthen and support women’s political participation, including as voters and candidates, throughout the election cycle.”
The envoy emphasized the importance of forthcoming talks in Cairo that will aim to resolve issues related to the voting, and told the virtual meeting that “the holding of elections in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem and Gaza, will (give) renewed legitimacy to national institutions, including a democratically elected parliament and government in Palestine.”
He urged the international community not to squander the incredible opportunities provided by recent developments in the region.
“I hope that the promise of the recent agreements made between Israel and Arab countries will lead to a situation where a more peaceful Middle East can be realized,” he said. “However, it requires leaders on all sides to re-engage meaningfully and return to the path of negotiations.”
In the meantime, Wennesland said, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to take a heavy toll on the Palestinian people, with Gaza particularly badly affected as many people there have lost their livelihoods.
He reiterated the support of UN agencies for efforts to ensure Palestinians have access to vaccine supplies but called on Israel, which has launched a large-scale immunization campaign for its citizens, also to help address the priority vaccination needs of Palestinians in the occupied territories. “This is (in) line with Israel’s obligations under international law,” he added.
Wennesland also urged Israeli authorities to halt all settlement activity in the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem. He called on both sides to put an end to violence and to hold any perpetrators accountable for their actions.
“I reiterate that Israeli security forces must exercise maximum restraint and may use lethal force only when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life,” he said.
“Furthermore, the indiscriminate launching of rockets toward Israeli population centers violates international law and must stop immediately. There can be no justification for attacks against civilians.”
He also urged Israel to halt seizures and demolitions of Palestinian homes and agricultural land “in line with (Israel’s) obligations under international humanitarian law, and to allow Palestinians in Area C and East Jerusalem to develop their communities.”
Wennesland said he will engage with the Middle East Quartet — the UN, the US, the EU and Russia — to identify concrete steps that can be taken to return the peace process to “the path of meaningful negotiations.”
He also reiterated UN concerns over the financial situation facing the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, and echoed an appeal by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres for support.
“The Agency is not only a lifeline for millions of Palestine refugees but is also critical for regional stability,” Wennesland said.
Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit urged the new US administration to rectify the mistakes of its predecessor. He said there is a window of opportunity to end the “dangerous stalemate” in the peace process but warned that it might not remain open for long.
Given that the continuing plight of the Palestinian people remains detrimental to the overall dynamics of the Middle East, he said that a resolution could open the door to prosperity and sustained security for the entire region.
Riyad Al-Maliki, the Palestinian foreign minister, called for an international peace conference that could serve as a new milestone in efforts to resolve the conflict, akin to the Madrid conference of three decades ago.
“The current situation leads to one state and a continued occupation,” Al-Maliki told the council.
“We are asking for nothing more than what the UN charter stipulates — and we will accept nothing short of that. We cannot accept a future made of walls, sieges, humiliation and suffering.”