Lisa Owen: Well, he's been Rob Muldoon's deputy Prime Minister, Prime Minister John Key's political mentor and spearheaded New Zealand's successful pitch for a seat on the UN Security Council, but Sir Jim McLay is yet to put his feet up. He's now a special envoy for the PM, special advisor to Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully and, intriguingly, our Representative to the Palestinian Authority. Thanks for making time to talk to us this morning. Now, you're not long back from your first official visit to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. A few weeks back, you met with Mahmoud Abbas. Tell me, what did you talk about?
Jim McLay: We talked about the situation in the occupied territories, the need to return to negotiations. New Zealand has taken a very strong line on this and the Security Council. One of the very first statements I made in the middle in January, only a few days after we had assumed our seat, criticised the council for abdicating its responsibilities in respect of the Middle East peace process. The present situation is unsustainable. That's a threat to international peace and security. The council should be engaged and it should be taking steps to bring the parties back to the table, not to dictate an outcome, but to bring them back to the negotiating table.
I want to talk about peace negotiations a bit more a bit later, but what did you make of the man and the environment that he's working in there?
It's the third time I've met with him, so it was a continuation of a trend. Clearly, he's very engaged. I met with him late on a Saturday night after he'd returned from short meeting, a short visit to Egypt to meet with President el-Sisi, where they were discussing what might happen at what was then the forthcoming annual General Assembly of the UN. And he was in one sense— I was surprised at how engaged he was, given the gruelling schedule he'd been working under in recent days. We talked a lot about the situation not only as between the Palestinians and the Israelis but also as between Fatah, which is his faction, and Hamas, which, as we know, governs Gaza. And it's very clear that there is still quite deep friction between those two and issues that will have to be addressed and resolved.
Well, you raise Gaza there. There's little dispute, I think, about the fact that the conditions in Gaza are absolutely horrendous. I mean, the international community is intervening to help out with the Syrian situation and refugees there, but what can be done about Gaza? What can the UN do? What can we do in New Zealand to help improve life and living conditions there?
The international community does have relief agencies working in Gaza itself. Indeed, you may remember that a UN school was bombed in last year's troubles, and that's just indicative of how close and small the area is and how risky it is to be there. So there's a lot of work being done, but you've got 40-plus percent unemployed. You've got roughly double the number of people working for the Hamas government than were in those jobs eight years ago, and that's just unsustainable, and the Fatah people are trying to get that number brought down to something reasonable so that they can actually pay for it. And there are all sorts of issues such as that that have to be addressed, and then there's the reconstruction. Some months ago, the international community met in Cairo and pledged quite large sums of money for the rebuilding of Gaza following last year's interaction, and a lot of that money hasn't turned up yet. Now, there's some reasons for that. They're not sure that the money's actually going to the right places and that it's being used for the right purposes. But that said, if there is no money, then the reconstruction is inevitably delayed, and that's giving rise to very serious social problems.
Well, shortly after you left, a spate of killings and violence started. Are you worried that this is the start of the third intifada, as some people are predicting?
Look, I'm not going to get involved in crystal ball gazing as to where this might lead. I was actually leaving the Sunday morning that the security authorities tightened up on the Al-Aqsa Mosque and therefore nothing was particularly happening the day I left, but obviously the situation has escalated since then.
But how much does it worry you?
Oh, it's deeply worrying. Any such unrest is deeply worrying. There is a suggestion that Jordan might actually host tripartite discussions. This has just come through in the past few hours that Jordan might host some tripartite discussions aimed at getting the situation back to normal. The Palestinian youth particularly has heard stories that the Israeli government plans to break up the mosque area, the sacred area, and to use it for other purposes, and that's been very strongly denied, but obviously that sort of issue has got to be put to rest.
It's fuelling things?
And it's fuelling things, and it's got to be put to rest.
Well, the thing is this is about the time that the UN had hoped to get these people back around the table talking, but now we've got a situation where you've got the Israeli Prime Minister accusing Mahmoud Abbas of inciting his people to violence. And then on the other hand, you've got Mahmoud Abbas saying, 'Well, Israel, you're threatening to burn this whole process to the ground.' So they were supposed to be talking now.
Well, the UN didn't have any timetable for getting people back to the table. That was one of our criticisms, that it wasn't negotiated—
But Murray McCully had indicated…
…that he wanted, he was hopeful there'd be discussions now.
Be very careful about what he said. He said that we would seek at an appropriate time to bring a resolution to the UN Security Council, directed towards it, and he did not put any timetable on it. And I was the one who was making the early statements on this, so I do know what we were saying.
But do you think the window is closed there now?
I think the window is a relatively small one. The thinking was that once the US Congress had resolved the Iran and P5+1 issues, which it has done, and before the US political season kicks off in its full with primaries and the like, that there is a window of opportunity where the issue might be pursued at the Security Council.
The point being that window is now.
That window is now, yes, and we are very actively engaged on the issue. The minister was meeting with a number of the major players when he was in New York just a couple of weeks ago, and he'll be doing likewise very shortly as well.
Well, the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, this week has said that he thinks that some of this frustration is sparked by what he calls the massive increase in Israeli settlements in recent years. Do you share his concerns about that?
Yes. The settlements are clearly an impediment to peace. We, along with virtually the whole of the international community, have said that very, very consistently. And when you are on the ground and you see how the settlements are placed and how they're being built and what their influence is on the occupied territory, you can understand why that's the case. At the same time, it's a reality, and it's one of the realities that will have to be addressed in the context of any peace settlement.
But how can you do that? Because, I mean, on the other hand, also, the other issue being that you are a representative to the Palestinian Authority. Now, this is an authority that has supported terrorism. So is it appropriate that we have an official representative dealing with that authority?
I think it's appropriate that we deal with the reality on the ground, which is that since Oslo, the early 1990s, since Oslo, there has been a governing authority in the Palestinian Territories, based in Ramallah, and we engage with it, and that I think is very appropriate.
But are you, de facto, negotiating with terrorists by doing that?
I don't believe so. I think that what we are saying is that this is the legitimately recognised and internationally recognised authority – even if Palestine isn't formally recognised as a state by many countries – this is the authority that governs this particular area. They work very closely with the Israeli government, particularly the security authority.
But is that still not that far apart from negotiating or talking to terrorists?
I think at some stage, you've got to talk. And if Israel regards the Palestinian Authority and the PLO as its enemy, then at some stage it's going to have to make peace with its enemy. You don't make peace with your friends.
Yeah. You make peace with your enemy. Just as the British government made peace with the IRA, which had traditionally been the terrorist force in the British Isles. You've got to make peace with your enemy.
Okay. So in terms of Israel and Palestine, then, and peace talks, are they that far apart? Because some people would say they're not.
In one sense, they're not. When Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas met in 2008, there were maps on the table as to how the territory would be divided up. There were understandings about most of the major, what are called 'final status issues' – the future of Jerusalem, issues such as water, rights of return and all those other issues – which are seen as vexing, but to which most people know what the solutions are. It's getting people to face up to agreeing them – indeed, to have the courage to agree them.
Okay. In the time we've got left, I want to cover off a couple of things. Now, you were appointed to this position when Israel rejected our new ambassador because he was going to be responsible for both Israel and Palestine. So it was a concession to Israel to appoint two people—
No, it wasn't.
…arguably. But also it's a clear diplomatic gesture, isn't it? Because you're the senior guy, and you've gone to the Palestinian Authority.
That's the message. You've got it.
So it was a message to Israel?
It was a message to Israel and Palestine that New Zealand regarded its relationships in the region, both with Israel and Palestine, as being of sufficient importance that it would appoint two senior people – Jonathan Curr in Ankara to Israel, and myself to the Palestinian Authority – as its representatives. I think that was a very strong gesture, and I'm sure the message got through to both of them.
The most senior to the Palestinian Authority. So what there any fallout from that from Israel?
No. On the contrary, I've always maintained good relationships with Israeli diplomats and will continue to do so. Our relationship with Israel is very strong. It took some rebuilding from the incidents of the middle part of the last decade, the passports. That had to be rebuilt, and it's a good strong relationship at ministerial and other levels. Likewise with the Palestinian Authority. We don't actually have a lot of common ground with them at the moment. We focus our attention on the Middle East peace process and on development assistance. We have a very active de-mining project in Palestine, which is of great benefit, particularly to those who want to farm the land. We engage. We have regular consultations with the Palestinian Authority at government-to-government level. All that is building. And the same time, we have a good relationship with Israel.
All right. Well, before we go, just very briefly, you were one of the original architects of the Official Information Act. Dame Beverley we had on there. How do you think it's going? Is it broken?
No, it's not broken. It's, I think, one of the most important pieces of legislation in this country's history. I suppose I would say that, because I put the Act through parliament. But, you know, it will always be tested, and in one sense, that's a good thing. It's a very active piece of legislation.
Very good. Thank you so much, Jim McLay. Very interesting to talk to you.
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