Last year I was honoured to lead the Elders’ delegation to Israel and the West Bank and I wish Mary Robinson well as she takes the lead, with Ela Bhatt, Lakhdar Brahimi and Jimmy Carter on their return to the region this week. I regret that I am unable to join them, but I shall be following their progress closely on this blog, and I invite you to do so too.
During our visit last year, we heard many stories that left a deep impression on me. While we were encouraged and inspired by those who work persistently in support of peace, we also saw how corrosive the Arab-Israeli conflict has been; how decades of mutual hostility and fear have impacted upon the ordinary Palestinians and Israelis we met.
We saw first hand many of the complex challenges blocking the path to peace. I recall in particular our meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres; in an emotional and intense conversation, we discussed the difficulties caused by Israel’s ongoing blockade of Gaza, as well as the sensitivities surrounding the status of Jerusalem that make it hard to achieve a solution. One year on, it is clear that the situation in both Gaza and East Jerusalem are even worse.
Yet it is in the interest of all of us to continue to support every effort to reach a negotiated agreement that ends the occupation and establishes a viable, sovereign, democratic Palestinian state.
The resumption of talks between Palestinian and Israeli leaders, however halting, is a sign of progress, and we sincerely hope that the process will continue. The wider region also is playing a more proactive role. We support peace between Israel and all Arab countries, with full diplomatic relations, including with the future Palestinian state. Speaking from my experience in Latin America, it is no coincidence that peace and development in our region have spread as our interconnection has deepened.
The final, and most important reason for optimism, is the example of ordinary people - the many Israelis and Palestinians who in their own way are trying to change their lives for the better – working both between and within their communities. You will be able to hear from some of them on this blog over the coming days.
Throughout their visit, the Elders will emphasise the need to achieve a just and secure peace for all. The details of course are far from simple, but an agreement must be based on international law and recognise the right of every Israeli and Palestinian to enjoy equal rights, regardless of race or religion.
I remain optimistic and say that when peace is achieved, it will be momentous. But it will take many people, with courage and open hearts, to get there.