Peres: Window for peace shrinking

President tells French FM Kouchner that the Middle East's policy of talk but no action must change.

peres head shot 224 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
peres head shot 224 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
"The window of opportunity for peace is shrinking," President Shimon Peres said Sunday during a meeting with visiting French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. "People are losing faith in peace," Peres said. "The Middle East has a policy of talk but not action - everybody talks, but nobody does anything. Only a fundamental change at the ground level, thousands of new workplaces and a raise in the quality of life in the West Bank will strengthen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] and the moderate peace camp." The two also discussed the situation in the Gaza Strip and the Iranian nuclear program, according to a statement issued by the president's office. Kouchner said there had been no real progress in the peace process since December's donors conference in Paris, in which the international community pledged billions of dollars in aid to the Palestinians over the next few years. The French foreign minister told Peres he felt a great deal of despair, frustration and hopelessness among Palestinians regarding the prospects of establishing a Palestinian state. This, he said, was "a dangerous thing." Kouchner arrived in Israel over the weekend and visited Bethlehem on Saturday before holding talks with Abbas and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayad. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni were expected to tell Kouchner in Jerusalem on Sunday that Israel would only ease sanctions imposed on Gaza after the Kassam rocket and mortar fire from the Strip stops. After meeting Fayad, Kouchner called for a Palestinian state to be set up "as quickly as possible" and told journalists he would ask Israel to do its utmost to help bring that about. He also said he would press Israel to freeze settlement activity. In an interview with the Palestinian daily Al-Quds, published Saturday, Kouchner called for Gaza's borders to be reopened. "We are calling to remove the blockade on Gaza because there must be movement for goods and people," he said. "The economic and humanitarian situation in Gaza is bad and the siege is affecting the economy in general, and also the living conditions." A French Foreign Ministry source said Kouchner did not intend to intervene in the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians but would encourage both sides to make painful compromises to achieve progress toward a final peace deal. During his trip to Bethlehem, Kouchner said the creation of a viable Palestinian state was in Israel's interest. Kouchner urged tourists from around the world to visit the town as part of efforts to revive the battered Palestinian economy. In December, France co-hosted a pledging conference in which international donors promised $7.7 billion in aid to the Palestinians over three years. The French foreign minister said he had started his visit in Bethlehem because it was a symbol of peace and hope. "I know that the population all around is suffering... but I hope we will get a better day," he said. "I hope that here in Bethlehem, tourists from all over the world will come back to see the Church of the Nativity." Kouchner said he believed peace was inevitable. "This is the only way... Also for Israel to be secure, living close to a Palestinian state," he said. Also Saturday, the UN's top humanitarian affairs official said during a visit to the Strip that the eight-month closure of Gaza had created "grim and miserable" conditions that deprived Gazans of their basic dignity, urging that the territory's borders be reopened. The UN official, Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes, toured Gaza's largest hospital, speaking with dialysis patients and inspecting the neonatal unit, and then visited an industrial zone that once employed 1,800 Palestinians but has been idled by the border closure. "All this makes for a grim human and humanitarian situation here in Gaza, which means that people are not able to live with the basic dignity to which they are entitled," Holmes told reporters in Gaza. Holmes's four-vehicle convoy, marked by blue UN flags, drove through potholed, muddy streets without a Hamas police escort. It was Holmes's first visit to Gaza as humanitarian affairs chief, part of a four-day trip that also includes a stop in Kassam-beleagured Sderot. The UN envoy started the day at Gaza City's Shifa Hospital, where administrators told him they were worried about a possible breakdown of overburdened generators and that they needed spare parts for medical machinery, such as dialysis machines. In recent weeks, rolling blackouts of several hours a day have been the norm in Gaza, a result of reduced fuel shipments by Israel. So far, generators have kept hospitals going during power cuts. "No freedom, no freedom," Zaher Shabat, the wife of dialysis patient Ahmed Shabat, told Holmes in broken English, after trying to squeeze all her woes into a brief conversation. She told him she has 10 children, and that with her husband unemployed, it was tough for him to spend money on trips to the hospital every other day. "I'll do my best," Holmes told her before being taken to the next patient. At Gaza's main cargo crossing, closed since June, Holmes was briefed by Wadie al-Masri, general manager of the Karni industrial zone which employed 1,800 before the closure. Al-Masri said he told Holmes that Israel must significantly increase the number of truckloads allowed into Gaza, from about 50 to at least 200 a day, just to meet basic needs. He said Gaza's private sector had largely collapsed since the closure, and that some leading manufacturers had taken their business abroad. Holmes called for reopening Gaza, and said he would talk about it with Israeli officials and representatives of Abbas. "I have been shocked by the grim and miserable things I have seen and heard about during the day," he said of his Gaza tour. Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev said an improvement depended on an end to the rocket attacks. "If terrorists in Gaza were to cease firing rockets into Israel, trying to kill our people, the situation could very quickly return to where it was," he said. AP contributed to this report