Beleaguered Foreign Minister Murray McCully, under fire in Wellington over the Saudi sheep deal, could yet emerge as a hero of the Israel/Palestine peace process.
His attempts to bring Israel and Palestine back to talks about recognising each other’s state are being widely reported in Israel.
And the Prime Minister, John Key, told his weekly post Cabinet Press Conference that New Zealand over recent months had been constantly looking for a way in which the Security Council could jump-start negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
New Zealand’s role depends on it assuming the Presidency of the Security Council on Wednesday and the fate of a French resolution on Israel/Palestine which is expected to be discussed by the Council.
There is also a question of timing with some argument that the peace process could not begin until talks with Iran over its nuclear capabilities and sanctions have been completed which is not expected till the end of the month.
Mr McCully, speaking last week, at the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, said there was a general acceptance in New York that it would be unhelpful to have a new initiative come forward before the Security Council before the Iran talks were completed and that was scheduled to be the end of June.
But he said that was not the view of Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas who Mr McCully met on June 5.
“President Abbas said in our meeting that first we had to wait for the election in Israel, then we had to wait for the formation of the Government and now we have to wait for the Iran deal and next we’ll have to wait for the election in Zimbabwe,” he said.
“Whatever difficulties there might be today the reality is that those difficulties will simply get bigger if we allow too much time to elapse.”
New Zealand has been working on trying to promote a settlement since January this year after a Jordanian proposal put to the Security Council last December failed.
Mr McCully has been standing aside to allow French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius to try and get agreement on a French proposal.
But that proposal looks doomed.
It calls for peace talks within an 18-month time frame, after which, if there was no agreement, Paris would unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state.
Israel vehemently rejects using multilateral organs such as the UN to coerce it into any sort of action vis-à-vis the Palestinians, arguing that progress can only be achieved in direct bilateral negotiations.
Netanyahu criticised the initiative on Sunday, accusing foreign powers of trying to dictate terms to Israel for a deal with the Palestinians.
Foreign Minister Murray McCully told TV3’s “The Nation” on Saturday that New Zealand was cognisant of Jerusalem’s jitters regarding efforts by the Security Council to impose conditions on Israel, and he would not push in that direction.
“I think what they’re really allergic to is the idea that the Security Council might start the process by imposing a whole lot of conditions, conditions in their view that would favor the other side,” he said.
“I think they’re less allergic to the notion that the Security Council might try and bring the two parties together, and that’s the sort of thing that we’ve got in mind.”
Thus there is growing optimism at the UN that a settlement could be on the horizon.
“Secretary-General (Ban Ki-moon) has said he is encouraged by the recent reaffirmations by Prime Minister Netanyahu of his commitment to ‘the idea of a sustainable two-state solution’ but notes this must be translated into actions,” U.N. political affairs chief Jeffrey Feltman told the U.N. Security Council last Wednesday.
And Reuters have quoted Egyptian Deputy Foreign Minister Osama al-Majdoub at the weekend as saying that Cairo views the Palestinian deadlock as “the heart of the conflict in the region,” and stressed the importance of restarting high-level negotiations between Jerusalem and Ramallah.
Those comments were made after he had met with high level Israeli diplomats.
“It is the Arabs’ central problem, and its solution is a basic condition to reaching stability in the region,” al-Majdoub said.
Mr McCully is optimistic.
“I can understand why external commentators say the position is difficult and why people are gloomy about the prospect of re-igniting the talks,” he said.
“I actually think there is more room for optimism than that.
“I think there is an increasing likelihood that New Zealand will have an active role in this problem.”
MFAT Deputy Secretary, Bede Corry, told the Committee there was a widely held view around the international community among some of New Zealand’s closest partners that we needed to make progress.
“So we are very active through the Minister’s diplomacy in the region a couple of weeks ago, through our networks in New York given that we are on the Security Council but also in some of the key capitals in western Europe but also in Washington.”
Mr McCully said he believed there was an increasing likelihood that New Zealand would have an active role in the process.
If it does, and he succeeds, then McCully and the Middle East may mean more than a controversial demonstration sheep farm in Saudi Arabia.