Press Briefing by Dr. Alon Liel, Director-General, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on the Sharm el-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee

Jerusalem, December 10, 2000

Good afternoon. As you know, we will have tomorrow the first meeting of the Sharm el-Sheikh fact-finding committee. It will start at 10:30 in the Prime Minister’s office, and will run until 14:00 including lunch, and then the committee is going to Gaza to meet Arafat and will spend the afternoon until the evening.

You know who the members of the committee are. As far as we heard so far, all five members will be here. Two of them are coming tonight already – Solana and Jagland – the rest are coming early tomorrow morning. Attending the meeting, as far as we know now, besides the five, will be five aides, one to each member, and a representative of the State Department. From our side there will be, besides the Prime Minister, officials from the Prime Minister’s office, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Defense. The Ministry of Defense is chairing this team, that is, preparing the written material. We are working now in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with full coordination with the Prime Minister’s office and the Ministry of Defense on the agenda of the meeting.

We welcome the committee, and we wish its members a lot of luck in their work and in their effort to reduce the level of violence, or even eliminate it, and to facilitate the continued negotiations by the two sides towards a permanent status agreement. The role of the committee as we see it, is to play a positive role in bridging gaps and lowering tensions, definitely not to become a divisive force.

We had, as you know, during the last two weeks, conversations with the American government and with members of the committee regarding the terms of reference of the committee, and it took about two weeks, or ten days, to clarify things. We have the feeling that the committee understands today the concerns that we have regarding the terms of reference, and that they all come with a very positive attitude. They see what’s going on, they see that the violence continues.

You know that we asked the committee to start working after the violence would be eliminated. They are coming although violence was not eliminated, and we agreed to this because we have the feeling that the committee members are determined to try and assist to reduce if not eliminate the violence. Since there is so much international concern, in so many circles, in so many countries, regarding this wave of violence, we thought that we should give the international community, at least in this form of this committee, a very serious chance to play a role in this attempt to eliminate the violence.

Q: Do you have the terms of reference in writing, and, if not, why did you agree that the committee would start working without having an official document?

A: First of all I don’t know, they are coming tomorrow, maybe Senator Mitchell is bringing with him something in writing. But we, based on the contacts we had with committee members and with the American administration, we have the picture that our concerns are very well known to them and understood, and we had the feeling that based on verbal conversations, some of which were written down by the sides, we don’t have any reason to worry, and the committee can start working.

Q: How will the committee work?

A: I can tell you how we see it, and I don’t know if this will be exactly the full picture: The sides will submit in writing their positions on what the committee is going to discuss – the outbreak of violence, and the means to eliminate the violence. Both sides will prepare their positions in writing and submit them. We will probably decide tomorrow on a date for the submission of the material.

I think most of the work of the committee, as far as we see it, will be based on documents, materials, positions, submitted in writing. If they will ask to meet people, and interview people besides, we will have to confirm it. We don’t see the committee as running in any way an independent investigation and not even interviewing people without the sides knowing. There will be a mechanism of dealing with the written material, and the oral material, and the sides will have a full picture on which kind of written material and oral material is being submitted to the committee.

Each side will submit its position on what happened during the last four-five months in the region, starting from Camp David on. Based on the material that the sides will submit, I assume that the committee will work on the events that happened only recently, and we are not speaking of anything before Camp David. Our feeling is that the committee has a macro-type of approach and not a micro-type of approach, but we’ll have to hear it from them. This is how we see it from the conversations. The approach is more a political type of approach to try and calm down the emotions and reduce the violence.

Q: When will the material be submitted to the committee?

A The committee requested that the material will be submitted by the 16th of December. We don’t see this at this stage as possible because December 16th is 6 days from today, and the first meeting is only tomorrow, so it’s 5 days after the meeting. I don’t think the material will be ready by then, and tomorrow probably one of the things we’ll have to discuss is the date for submitting the material. They also have to go to the Palestinians and discuss the date with them, but it will not be in the very long future, we’re speaking on a matter of weeks, regarding the date.

Q: (on the Palestinian position)

A: We have seen several interviews by Yasser Abed Rabbo regarding the committee, and as you know there was a meeting of the committee members on the November 26th in New York. We send Alan Baker, our Legal Advisor, and the Palestinians sent Yasser Abed Rabbo. We saw his interviews after the meeting, and the way he presented it is totally unacceptable. Some of the worries we had stemmed from the way Abed Rabbo presented it, dragging it to the Security Council, dragging it to the Geneva Convention, and widening the scope to something that doesn’t resemble at all the understanding of Sharm el-Sheikh. Most of our worries were assuaged by the committee members, and we hope that the attitude of the Palestinians towards the work of the committee will be a professional attitude here, and not a propaganda attitude, because I think this is the key to enable the committee to play a positive role.

If both sides will try and push it to the propaganda ground and battle there, instead of submitting material verbally and in writing, and dealing with it according the modalities agreed upon in Sharm el-Sheikh, where the main issue was to try and eliminate violence – if this propaganda battle will start, the role of this committee will be substantially damaged. So we hope both sides will try and be precise as possible and present the details from Sharm el-Sheikh professionally and not emotionally, not as propaganda but with a legal and professional attitude.

Q: (on the composition and work of the committee)

A: In Sharm el-Sheikh it was agreed that the committee will have an American chairman, a Norwegian member, an Israeli member, and a Palestinian member. This was the original structure. We already agreed to widen it, and the committee looks today more international than was meant, at least by us, at Sharm el-Sheikh. The reason we did it was that we felt that there is international concern regarding this wave of violence, and there is a lot of goodwill in the international community to try and assist. We thought that this international goodwill could be channeled to a fact-finding committee. We really hope that not only we will try to help the committee in its work, and help it to a constructive role, but everybody – the Palestinians, the rest of the international community, and everybody who is now so involved in attempts to reduce the violence will let this committee work and give this committee a chance to succeed.

As you know, there are five members. Each of the them has an aide, who, as far as we have seen so far, are all ambassadors, or heads of departments in foreign ministries, so most them are professional diplomats. According to what we have heard, there are also several technical people, some of whom have police background. But the main task of this committee as we see it will be to analyze the written material, to prepare comments or questions based on the written material. I don’t think we cannot expect five personalities of this caliber to do the technical work by themselves, so what concerned us mainly was that we understand how the committee is going to function, and how the committee is going to see its role. Once we understood what is the role of the committee, and what are the modalities – if there is a technical team or not is not as important.

The purpose of this committee is not to put the blame on one of the sides. This committee is there to see to it that such a thing will not happen again, and to see how we can reduce the violence.

We are speaking of a committee that is there to check how a peace process of seven years deteriorated to a wave of violence, and how can we prevent such a thing from reoccurring, and how can we stop the violence. This is the mandate, the mandate stems from Sharm el-Sheikh. If there will be unreasonable demands on the Palestinian side to add topics that are not to be covered by the work of the committee, it will only damage the work of the committee. There is a very clear written understanding in the Sharm el-Sheikh decision that speaks on establishing a fact-finding committee, and speaks of the mandate of the committee. We don’t want to tackle it negatively – what we don’t want the committee to do. We know what the committee is supposed to do, and we hope that it will do what it is supposed to do for the benefit of the sides of the region.

Most of what was agreed with the committee was verbal. They said that the attitude will be very positive, that their approach will be basically political. They will not go too much into details, because the purpose is to bridge gaps, to create a new atmosphere, to reduce violence. They spoke in general terms, and we trust and believe that the committee members have this positive approach, and will not start dealing with issues that might only increase the already inflamed emotions and widen the differences, the gaps between the sides.

We were concerned about the fact that in statements we saw coming from the Palestinians there were different expectations, at least public expectations on the Palestinian side. We were worried that what we call the terms of reference, or the modalities are not clear enough. But when we heard about the general atmosphere as it was conveyed to us, and when we heard about the response to our very basic concerns, especially that we don’t have an independent investigation going on. We rejected the idea of having an investigation or inquiry, we said we are not going to have such an inquiry commission, and the result was a fact-finding committee. Once we knew that it’s really a fact-finding committee, and we know how the committee will work approximately, and we see the positive atmosphere, we thought the committee can start working tomorrow.

The fact that this positive attitude of the committee members was conveyed to us was a very calming, and how they will draw their conclusions regarding their work, regarding each incident, regarding each topic, is, I think, at the moment, not as critical as the general atmosphere that they are trying to create during their first visit and the first meetings. I think that it will be extremely important that after tomorrow, a few hours with us, a few hours with the Palestinians, the committee members themselves will leave the region saying, "Look, there is something we can do here, there is a contribution that we can make," and not go home and say, "What we have in front of us is something we cannot deal with it, it’s unbridgeable, we give up. Let’s go, each of us is very busy with other things, and we made our political careers already. Let’s not go into this mess."

So I hope very much, because it’s very important to us, and I hope that it’s very important to the Palestinians, that after this short visit of altogether I think 12 or 13 hours to both sides, the committee members will be motivated to go on and contribute to peace in the region.  

 Press Briefing by Dr Alon Liel- Director-General- Ministry of Foreign Affairs- on the Sharm el-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee-10-Dec-2000
 Press Briefing by Dr Alon Liel- Director-General- Ministry of Foreign Affairs- on the Sharm el-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee-10-Dec-2000
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 Press Briefing by Dr Alon Liel- Director-General- Ministry of Foreign Affairs- on the Sharm el-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee-10-Dec-2000
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 Press Briefing by Dr Alon Liel- Director-General- Ministry of Foreign Affairs- on the Sharm el-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee-10-Dec-2000
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