Well, Espen, thank you very, very much for convening this year. Thank you for your leadership. We're very grateful, I think everybody in this room, to Norway for years of chairing this committee and for decades of leadership on this critical issue.
And I want to say good afternoon to everybody here. It's an extraordinary turnout and a great gathering of many people who have spent a lot of time of their public lives traveling this road. And I want to assure you that I come at this -- notwithstanding 28 years in the Senate, where I had the privilege of being engaged in this issue -- I come at this with a lot of humility, a lot of awareness of how complicated this is in many ways, though simple in other ways. You may find that contradiction hard to digest, but I think it's a valid one. It says something about the unique nature of this moment that we are gathered here today for this ministerial meeting of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, which doesn't gather that frequently. And it speaks to the common sense of urgency that we all feel. And believe me, if we don't feel it, we ought to feel it.
I want to thank Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for his commitment to peace and for joining us today. And I'm obviously very, very privileged to be here with our friend Cathy Ashton, the EU High Representative. I want to welcome the Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and Israel's Minister of Strategic Intelligence Affairs Yuval Steinitz. And I thank both of them for the cooperation that they and their governments have been providing.
I think it's an understatement to say that the breadth and depth of the leadership in this room is a very clear demonstration of the commitment of the international community to the cause of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. And I think it's a testimony to the fact that everybody here knows in your gut and in your head that the two-state solution is the only way forward. I've read occasionally in the papers lately some people who try to assert a one-state solution, on one side or the other, I might add. Anybody who has studied this issue through the years knows there is no one-state solution. There is no peace through the concept. There is no capacity for people of either Palestinian or Israeli nationality to find peace through that solution. We have to move to the two-state solution, and we have to do it rapidly.
People sort of throw this concept of the window closing out there. The reason I am tenacious about this and so committed to it, as is President Obama, and the reason he went in March -- almost the first thing he did after he was re-inaugurated -- is because we deeply believe that there are huge dangers on the other side of today's status quo: the potential of another intifada, the potential of things getting out of control for a Palestinian Authority that is deeply committed to nonviolence and that has pursued that cause over these years. Whether it has met all the standards that one side wanted or another or some expectation from the outside community, it has pursued that course.
Likewise, Israelis have an absolute right to find a future where people are not firing rockets on them, where they don't have to have the kind of defensive structure they have today to defend themselves and protect the future. And both peoples have huge ties -- historical, religious, and otherwise -- to this region, as do many people in history.
I believe the leaders have taken risks, both leaders. One of the things that I find most encouraging is both leaders took risks within their own political structures to move us to where we are today. It was not easy for either of them. Prime Minister Netanyahu is doing something that is exceedingly difficult. Imagine any of you releasing prisoners, let alone 104 of them at one time, over a period of time, in one fell swoop, announcing it and dealing with the pushback from some people. Imagine the willingness to enter into a negotiation which obviously brings with it political price.
Likewise President Abbas. He faced a very difficult political landscape with respect to the choice that he made, many people arguing that nothing had changed with Israel, there was no reason to believe this could be different, there was no reason to put forward, don't -- the easier route is go to the United Nations, just pursue your road. He said no. He realized that to resolve this, it must be done in a negotiation with Israel. And so he took a risk and pushed back against people who spoke of that other road that some perceive as easier.
So for these leaders to live up to the challenges of making peace, we -- all of us collectively in this room -- have to live up to our obligations on the economic front. And I want to emphasize that the economic initiative is not a -- it's not a sidebar. It's essential to begin to prove to people what the possibilities of the future are with peace. That's what this conference is all about.
So let me take this opportunity to sort of bring you up to speed a little bit on where we are. But I want to put this also into context. I don't think failure is an option. Because if we fail, all of us in this endeavor -- and I mean all of us -- what comes afterwards? What fills the void in a part of the world that is already filled with turmoil? This, on the other hand, if it is successful, it could send a message to all of those other places about the possibilities of peace, of creating stability, of changing a dynamic that we've all been locked into for far too long. And we have hurdles to get through. There are bad habits, both sides. And sometimes the automatic response to one tit results in the other tat, and you go back and forth and you get stuck, and you lose the opportunity. We have to work overtime to prevent that from happening here.
So we have begun the negotiations. And as we agreed with the parties -- I want to emphasize here today -- I am the only one authorized to speak on these negotiations. So if you read something in the papers and somebody's leaked some notion, don't believe it. They've been wrong three-quarters, nine-tenths of the time, and don't waste your time picking between which one might be wrong and which one might be right. We have structured these negotiations to lay the groundwork for the decisions that the leaders will ultimately have to make.
Now, let me just emphasize to everybody here -- I see a bunch of folks out here who've been through this for a long time, Tony Blair particularly, and others. We all know. We know the basic framework; it is not a secret. The hardest thing is not imagining what a peace looks like; it's getting there. Working through this. And that's one of the reasons why we intend to keep these negotiations secret. Private. So that they're not chewed out in public. And so that we can work diligently between earnest parties committed to this endeavor to try to find a way forward.
At the negotiators level, the parties have now engaged in about seven rounds of direct bilateral negotiations, and the U.S. Special Envoy Martin Indyk has been part of a number of those. Purposefully, we want the Palestinians and Israelis to meet together, work this through, build trust, build relationship. But at the same time, we are there to facilitate, to help if there needs to be a bridging proposal to work on the way forward. And we've agreed now in the last week, when I have met with both President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu, we've agreed now to intensify these talks, and we've agreed that the American participation should be increased somewhat in order to try to help facilitate them.
There are two tracks. We have two tracks here. The formal track in which Yitzhak Molho and Tzipi Livni are negotiating with Saeb Erekat and Mr. Shtayyeh of the Palestinian Authority. That track is working now at discerning the gaps, defining the issues, defining the -- what's the -- what are the parameters that they need to work through. But the second track is Prime Minister Netanyahu, President Abbas, and myself, and President Obama. And as needed, as we think appropriate, as we need to move the process, we will be consulting among each other and working to move this process forward.
Now, I'm not going to go into any of the details, but I will tell you that all of the issues are on the table: territory, security, refugees, Jerusalem -- all of the final status issues are on the table. And importantly, we are not seeking an interim agreement; we are seeking a final status agreement. If there's one lesson that leaps out at me after following all of the years -- I was on the White House lawn, I had been through watching Wye Plantation, Annapolis, Madrid, and all of these things, as have you. I see our friend Nasser Judeh; he's a veteran of all of this. The one lesson is that if you leave things out there, hanging out there unresolved, people who don't want things to happen can make them not happen. And so we have to try to find a way to get a resolution of the fundamental choices here.
Now, both leaders have committed to achieving a final status agreement on the core issues within this timeframe we've laid out. Some people say it's too short a time to work it out. I don't think so. I believe the fact is the two sides have been negotiating this for years. And we've seen us come this close -- Taba, Camp David -- we've been through this. What this really needs -- there's no secret about it -- to achieve this status is a dose of courage and a reasonable level of compromise. And at the same time as the negotiators are working to establish and narrow the gaps on the core issues, I will continue to engage very closely with the two leaders.
Now, President Obama has shown his personal commitment to this, which he reaffirmed yesterday in the most clear terms, two major issues that he is going to devote time to in the next days: One is Iran, and two is the Middle East peace process.
Now, when the negotiating process began, President Obama met with the negotiating teams at the White House, encouraging them to engage seriously. He saw President Abbas yesterday. He plans to see Prime Minister Netanyahu next week. And as the President made clear in his speech to the UN General Assembly, the resolution of this conflict remains one of the top priorities of the United States and it is squarely at the center of our vision of the future Middle East. He said yesterday -- and I repeat this to all of you -- the time is now for the entire international community to get behind the pursuit of peace.
So I'm gratified by the support that has come this far, particularly from the Arab League Follow-on Committee. They have been courageous too, I might add. They came to Washington, they stepped up, they tweaked the Arab Peace Initiative. It became a state-of-the-art 2013 Arab Peace Initiative which encompassed 1967 lines plus swaps, which it hadn't done previously.
And that brings us to this meeting here of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee. I said earlier that there's no question in my mind that the status quo is not sustainable for any number of reasons -- the politics, the demographics, the security, economy, civil rights, human rights. Run the list; not sustainable. And so that increases the urgency, which is why this meeting is also important, because the economic track is vital to helping to give credibility to the other track. It's not a substitute. Let me say that one more time but exponentially multiply it: It's not a substitute. The political track is the only track that will ultimately bring the peace, but this is a track that can help to deal with people whose aspirations have been crushed for years on both sides, people who are upset that they don't know what the future will bring, they don't know what peace brings.
If the economy begins to move, if people begin to invest, if people demonstrate an investment in the future, we begin to send a message of change and a message of possibilities and of hope. Foreign Minister Abdullah of the Emirates said the other day at the Arab League meeting in Paris, he said if Israel makes peace, it and the countries around it that take part in that will be the richest countries in the region and the world because there'll be an enormous economic benefit that will flow from peace with 19 Arab countries that haven't made peace and 35 Muslim countries. That's what's at stake here.
So the United States is coordinating very closely with the Palestinian Authority now on a comprehensive approach to try to meet the economic needs. First, direct budget support for the Palestinian Authority remains essential. We cannot have an authority that is every day struggling just to survive and pretend that it's going to have the ability to be able to build the capacity to provide for the requirements of a state that will give Israel and Israelis the confidence that this is a state you could make peace with. So we have to build the institutions. We have to build the possibilities. And frankly, that's been too much of a struggle for President Abbas and for the Authority these last years. We've heard from the Palestinians this week that even if the current pledges of 200 million are fulfilled, they currently face a budget shortfall of some 350 million by the end of the year.
So many of you here have been strong supporters of the Palestinian Authority, but your support in filling these pledges and making up the shortfall is more critical than ever. We are focused on this need. And I'll tell you, we're not just talking about it. The United States has provided another $348 million in debt relief this year and we're prepared to try to do more, but we need more people to step up.
I am personally encouraging other donors to come forward with funds that will relieve the Authority's debts to the private sector, including banks, and we're working very closely with some of the Gulf states now. My hope is that we can have an announcement in short order about progress there.
Second, to stimulate short-term economic growth we've worked with the Palestinian Authority to develop an initiative that encourages immediate investment in high-impact micro-infrastructure projects in the West Bank. And central to this effort has been identifying high-priority, relatively low-cost projects that are in line with the Palestinians' national objectives that will bring maximum benefit and creating opportunity and jobs.
The United States -- again, we have directed $20 million into these type of projects. We're seeking 80 million in additional support. And these projects can be started and completed in the next months while the negotiations are taking place so Palestinians can see change taking place on the ground. That is critical to demonstrate that going to negotiations has a reward, has a benefit, makes a difference. And it's a way of supporting both leaders on both sides for the risks they have taken. I hope many of you here will support this effort.
Finally, we're focused on creating a sustainable, long-term growth in the Palestinian economy through foreign direct investment. And the private sector is at the heart of the third dimension of our effort. It's called the Palestinian Economic Initiative. We work very closely with Quartet Representative Tony Blair, with private sector individuals, with private consulting companies. We've done eight years of man-hours of work in several months assessing both the Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian economy looking at how we can maximize this opportunity. And the details of this initiative are still being fleshed out in close coordination with our Palestinian partners.
But the bottom line is clear: If we can galvanize private sector investment, experts say that we can dramatically grow the Palestinian GDP, we could cut unemployment from somewhere in the range of 21 percent down to maybe 8 or so percent over a very short period of time, and we can increase the median wages within three years. The team is focused on eight sectors of the Palestinian economy, whether construction, light manufacturing, energy, telecom, and we have found enormous opportunities.
And I'd just ask you to look at one potential for instance. Imagine peace. Tourism alone. Imagine welcoming people to a part of the world where you don't have to go through the checkpoints the same way, where there's a capacity over the years to work a different relationship. So you have the Church of the Nativity, the site of the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the Ibrahimi Mosque, the Holy places, Galilee, the Temple Mount, the incredible cross-section of history, so many different people with a stake and an investment in the emotional attachment to all that this region as a whole represents, the home of the world's three great religions.
So we're working with the Government of Israel now, and I want you to know Prime Minister Netanyahu has bent over backwards to make things happen. He has acted in good faith. The things he said he would do, they're doing. Ranging -- and you'll hear this from Minister Steinitz -- the Israelis have taken important steps, permitting new construction materials into Gaza, steel, cement -- permitting the number of permits for Palestinians by 5,000 additional permits for young Palestinians to be able to come into Israel and work, and they've lowered the age for those people to be able to do so. They have delivered significant amounts of additional water -- some 8,000 cubic meters per day. They've agreed to the refurbishment of new wells and creation of new wells of water for Palestinians.
The Allenby-Hussein Bridge will now be open five days a week, 24/7 in order to permit greater movement across the bridge. There's telecommunications equipment has now been permitted to go into Gaza, as well as other kinds of materials, delivery of -- working on the Gaza Marine Gas project and other things. So you'll hear from many others that there's more work to do, and yes there is, particularly on movement and access and other things. And our hope is that as we go forward in the negotiations, that some of those changes -- some of which have to do with security issues for Israel -- will lend themselves to making decisions that couldn't be made today. And I believe Prime Minister Netanyahu is open to that. The development, obviously, in Area C.
So these are all important steps that can stimulate economic growth, empower moderate voices, ensure that the Palestinian state will be prosperous over time. And as the Palestinian state gains in this capacity, my friends, they will be less dependent on foreign aid. Companies from our own nations, all of them, could benefit enormously. I'll give you -- Coca-Cola has three plants in the West Bank today. A regular soft drink plant, a Coca-Cola plant, a water plant, and they're prepared to do more. And with Tony Blair -- I'll think he'll describe to you some of the things that they're doing to pull people to the table.
So I'll just close -- I've talked a little long, but I want to just emphasize to everybody here: I don't think there's anybody in the world who doesn't have a stake in this peace process, frankly. This has bedeviled governments and peoples for decades now. Given the stakes -- I'm not going to run through all the downsides, because they're not pretty, and most of you are experts in it and you understand them -- but we have to talk more about the upsides, we have to present people with a vision of what peace can really bring here. It is not only Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas who need to heed this call, who need to respond to this moment. It's all of us that's going to require everybody to take responsibility. We have the mechanisms to be able to coordinate -- from the Special Envoy to the Special Representative of the Quartet to the EU to our own initiative, the Palestinian initiative. We can make this happen.
And I am confident that we will leave no stone unturned in these next months in an effort to get there. I saw the struggle the leaders went through to come back to the table. Wasn't easy. I think it was Tony Blair who said to me many times, "The launch is the hardest part." It's almost more difficult than getting there in the end. I see Yitzhak Molho sitting here. He has worked many, many hours diligently at this, working with us to try to advance this. There is no question in my mind that we can make peace. None. But it will require everybody to support both leaders in the courageous decisions they are going to have to make. And not just to be there for that launch, but to be there every day afterwards in order to deliver to both peoples the full measure of the expectations and hopes of their aspirations for making peace.
Seventy-two percent of the people in Israel support a two-state solution. Are there people who don't? Obviously, if it's only 72 percent. There are people who want to stop this on both sides. But the world has an enormous investment in this process, and I believe in the end that we can deliver. And I thank you all for listening so carefully. (Applause.)