Thank you, Madame President, and thank you, Special Coordinator Serry, for your thorough briefing. I’ll begin my remarks today with Israeli-Palestinian issues before turning to Syria and Lebanon.
The United States recognizes that the path to a comprehensive peace settlement in the Middle East is littered with obstacles. But we also believe that the goal is as essential as the process is turbulent. For this reason, we will continue to support negotiations between the parties. However, ultimately the choice is up to the leaders and their people. None of us can make the difficult decisions required for peace and the parties have decided to take a pause in the negotiations. We have clearly reached a difficult moment, but we continue to believe that there is only one real viable solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: two states living side by side in peace and security. And if the parties are willing to go down the path -- this path -- we will be there to support them.
In this connection, we are grateful for the strong support the negotiations have received from the Arab League, the European Union, the Quartet, and other key partners. We will continue to look to you for support in the weeks and months ahead.
Regarding the recent announcement by Fatah and Hamas that they intend to form a technocratic government to prepare for new elections, the timing of the announcement was clearly unhelpful in terms of efforts that were underway between the parties to reach an agreement on extending the negotiations. The United States and the other members of the Quartet have been clear about the principles that must be accepted by a Palestinian government in order for it to achieve peace and build an independent Palestinian state. These principles have not changed. Any Palestinian government must unambiguously and explicitly commit to nonviolence, recognition of the State of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations between the parties. President Abbas has been committed to these principles and has declared that any government he forms will be committed in the same way. If a new Palestinian government is formed, we will assess it based on its composition and actions as well as its adherence to these principles.
We continue to oppose unilateral actions that seek to circumvent or prejudge outcomes that can be negotiated only between the parties, including efforts to enhance Palestinian claims to statehood absent a negotiated final status agreement.
Similarly, we continue to view Israeli settlements in the West Bank as illegitimate and oppose any efforts to establish new settlements, expand existing ones, or legalize settlement outposts.
Our positions on other aspects of the process are also well known and have not changed.
The United States remains deeply concerned by the uptick in tensions and violence at the Temple Mount / Haram al-Sharif compound around the Passover and Easter holidays and urges all parties to redouble efforts to reduce tensions, while maintaining the status quo. We continue to maintain high-level engagement on this issue.
My government also condemns other acts of violence, including rocket strikes into Israel from the Gaza Strip, the April 14 murder of an Israeli police official, and settler attacks and demolitions directed against Palestinian civilians in the West Bank. We call upon all concerned to avoid incidents that might make further disturbances more likely. We look to the authorities on both sides to investigate and hold accountable persons responsible for acts of violence. We also call on both sides to respect the terms of the November 2012 ceasefire involving Israel and Gaza.
In addition, the United States remains troubled by the humanitarian situation in Gaza. Several UN relief projects, which are important to improving the conditions there, are still awaiting Israeli approval. We urge all parties to continue to work together to increase the access of humanitarian supplies into that area.
Let me now turn to Syria, where the devastating conflict is now in its fourth year, and where the violence continues, the number of refugees is still going up, and the flow of humanitarian aid remains a trickle compared to the overwhelming need.
Earlier this month, many of us attended a presentation during which we saw graphic photographs depicting the torture and industrial-style killing of some 11,000 Syrian detainees. Those photos illustrate but a small fraction of the horrors inflicted by the Assad regime. We must add to that the victims of chemical attacks and barrel bombs, the families deprived of food by the government’s “starve or surrender” policy, the patients forcibly removed from hospitals, and the many thousands of people who have disappeared or remain in detention. I realize that these facts are all too familiar to Council members and the broader international community, but I stress them because we must never become resigned or inured to the devastation that is taking place in Syria and to the Syrian people. We must keep this litany of horror before us and remain steadfast in our determination to end the killing and to hold the perpetrators of these crimes accountable.
At the same time, we should be neither surprised nor deceived by the Syrian government’s cynical choice of this inopportune moment to schedule a presidential election. Although we all look forward to the day when meaningful balloting can take place in Syria, that day is not June 3, nor anytime in the near future. Although credible elections have been held in the midst of conflict, such a process is inconceivable in Syria today, where the regime has crushed political dissent and nearly half the population is displaced by war, including millions of potential voters who have been forced to flee the country. Inside Syria, do we reasonably expect the 242,000 people in besieged areas or the more than 3.5 million in hard-to-reach areas to vote in these elections, when the regime systematically denies them access even to food and medicine? Does anybody expect the regime to enfranchise those it has decided to starve?
Regime-sponsored elections are inconsistent with the UN-led Geneva process and threaten to further undermine the prospects for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. My government joins with Secretary-General Ban and Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi in calling on the government to postpone the balloting and to instead focus on the steps – clearly defined in the Geneva Communique – to create an atmosphere in which a positive electoral process might move forward.
The humanitarian situation – which has been calamitous for many months – has grown even worse of late. The regime’s failure to implement UN Security Council Resolution 2139 has wasted valuable time and claimed many more lives. The conditions remain dire across the country, but most notably in Homs, Aleppo, and in areas near Damascus, such as the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp.
We should all be clear about where the fault for this deterioration lies. It is the regime with the stroke of a pen that could allow cross-border assistance to reach millions in need, but it doesn’t. It is the regime that continues to pound Syrian civilians with ruthless barrel bombs. It is the regime that has coldly integrated the denial of humanitarian assistance into its ever-expanding arsenal of weapons against the Syrian people.
In addition, as my government and others have noted, we have indications that a toxic chemical – probably chlorine – was used in an attack this month against the opposition-dominated village of Kafr Zayta. These reports and others are extremely serious and they are of profound concern to the international community. We welcome today’s announcement that the OPCW is sending a mission to Syria to determine the facts on alleged chlorine gas attacks. Syria must immediately and fully cooperate with such fact-finding and anybody responsible for such attacks must be held accountable.
Finally, with respect to Lebanon, my government remains concerned about the fragile security situation including tensions along the Blue Line, repeated cross-border violations by Syria, ongoing sectarian violence, and Hizballah provocations such as last month’s attack against Israeli soldiers in the Shebaa Farms region.
The United States urges calm and hopes that all parties will refrain from violence and adhere to the government’s disassociation policy, as enshrined in the Baabda Declaration. We urge, as well, the full implementation of all UN Security Council resolutions, including 1559 and 1701, which require the disarmament of militia.
Lebanon’s leaders face the challenge of working together to address the host of country --- of security, economic, humanitarian, and political problems confronting the country. As we have discussed, that challenge is exacerbated by the needs to host the now more than one million refugees from Syria living within Lebanon’s borders. As a member of the International Support Group for Lebanon, we urge the international community to respond to this epic humanitarian crisis by providing robust financial and other backing through the various funding mechanisms that are available.
On the political side, it is important for the cabinet to continue to steer Lebanon on the sustainable course of moderation. Lebanon’s political leaders have a responsibility to their citizens and to their country’s constitution to conclude the recently-initiated presidential selection process by May 25. This is a Lebanese undertaking that should and must be determined by Lebanon alone, free from outside interference. Both presidential and parliamentary elections must be conducted in a free, fair, and timely manner.
My colleagues, at Wadi Araba twenty years ago, Jordan’s King Hussein asked us to envision a Middle East in which there would be “no more death, no more misery, no more suspicion, no more fear, no more uncertainty of what each day will bring.” That vision, in that time, seemed far more within our grasp than is the case today. Our task – and it is an urgent one -- is to reverse course and restore a sense of progress and hope in the region. To that goal, I pledge my own government’s best efforts and respectfully welcome yours.
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