Mohammad Shtayyeh, Ph.D.
Let me start by emphasizing the purpose of this three-day conference, and that is to provide an opportunity for political leaders, as well as humanitarian organizations, to meet together in an informal setting to review the development of relations between Europe and Palestine.
Why Palestine and Europe? We all know that trade relations between Palestine and Europe are vital. In economic terms, the European Union is Palestine’s most significant partner. Over the period 1993 to 1998, the EU’s contribution to the Middle East peace process amounted to ECU 1.68 billion, thus dwarfing the efforts of other donors. This assistance is considered essential if Palestinian independence is to be consolidated and economic and social development achieved.
Europe also happens to be the gavel holder of the multi-lateral talks which has been put on hold due to the impasse in the Peace Process. Culturally speaking, Europe is also important to us. For that we are preparing, with your assistance, the celebrations of Bethlehem 2000. So I think that there is really no need to stress the fact that Europe is very important to Palestine and vice-versa. And I think that this conference reflects that point in particular.
Europe plays a similarly important role in regard to the Middle East region as a whole. In 1995, trade between the core parties: Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Palestine, and the EU was recorded at US$313.4 billion, which is 11% higher than trade with the rest of the world and twice that with the USA. Furthermore the importance of the EU to the region will continue to grow as the Union expands to incorporate the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and Cyprus. Improved access to the huge European market represents an enormous potential stimulus to economic development in Palestine and in the wider region.
With the appointment of Mr. Miguel Moratinos as the EU’s Special Representative to the Middle East Peace Process, Europe has begun to assume a more assertive role in the political evolution of the region. It is important, therefore, that Europe takes on a higher profile, in support of the United States, in all the bilateral discussions that take place between Israel and its neighbors. Europe, which provides the economic clout behind the peace process, thus should use its unique knowledge and understanding of the Middle East to facilitate the rapid achievement of a comprehensive, just and lasting settlement of the Arab Israeli conflict
What do we want out of this conference? First and foremost, we would like to open up a debate on our political direction and the way our economy is heading to. Secondly, we would like to hear your advice and benefit from your expertise. We do not have to re-invent the wheel again. We would also like to show you our reality. I remember when Jaque Santer was visiting Palestine at Thierry Bechet s house, he said to me: even though I read newspapers everyday, what I saw in Gaza and the West Bank is beyond the words of any newspaper. So we would like you to see this Palestinian reality, that s why we have organized a little tour for everybody to share with us what is happening on the ground. So, we would like to strengthen our relationship with you. And on top of all we would like to find new venues of trade and cooperation between Palestine and the European Union.
I would like to welcome all our distinguished guests from the European side and from the Palestinian side to this conference which will consist of four sessions: The first session will focus on the current political issues and will allow for a comprehensive review of the peace process with clarification of the major obstacles to achieving a just settlement. And as I said earlier, peace is a common goal for all of us. The peace process is now stuck and the Washington talks has ended with all files open. At that session we will be hearing from Dr. Saeb Ereikat and Mr. Moratinos very fresh news on what is happening and what has already happened in Washington. This session will also be attended by the representative of the European Union and the representative of Austria who has come all the way to share the precedence of the EU. Professor Ibrahim Abu Lughod will be chairing this session.
The second session will address democracy, political pluralism and the democratic experience. This session will provide the opportunity to review the civil and political situation in the territories and discuss what further contribution Europe might make to its improvement. We all do remember how Europe stood by us when we conducted our elections in January 1996, and provided us with financial and technical assistance. In this session we will also listen to how far the Palestinian Legislative Council has gone since it has been elected. Mr. Ahmad Qurei’ (Abu Ala) and Dr. Sari Nusseibeh will both speak at that session. Mr. Miguel Martinez, president of the Interparliamentary Union and former President of the Council of Europe will also be among the speakers. So will the honorable gentleman, Mr. Gerald Kaufmann, from the British Parliament. The session will be chaired by lady Luciana Castellina.
The third session will address the Palestinian economic and social policy, institution building and development assistance. The speakers will be: Mr. Maher Al-Masri, Minister of Economy and Trade; Mr. Thomas Dupla, head of the Middle East Department at the European Commission; Mr. Joseph Saba, president of the resident mission of the World Bank as well as Mr. Antti Kousmannen, who is the director of the foreign economic policy at the Council of Europe. The chair to that session will be Mr. Shukri Bishara, regional director of the Arab Bank.
The last session puts Palestine within the regional context and will be attended by Dr. Nabil Sha’ath, Mr. Arthur Dunkel who is the president of Stimena, the Swiss initiative on Middle East Trade agreement, Mr. Tom Spencer and the Managing Director of PECDAR. In that session, we will be discussing regional economic cooperation, as building links with other countries of the region is a high priority. This will help stimulate economic development and reduce Palestine’s present unhealthy dependence on Israel. The EU, through the Euro-Med partnership and as the gavel holder of REDWG, is playing a central part in encouraging such an initiative. Mr. Eberhard Rhein from the European Policy Center will chair that session.
In the closing session, we will all be happy to listen to Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, Legislative Council Member and former Minister of Education. After that we will be going for the little tour that I have mentioned.
by Dr. Mohammad Shtayyeh