In sharp contrast to his last briefing of "foreboding" looming over the Middle East, the head of the United Nations Political Affairs office told the Security Council today that "there exists, once again, a 'window of opportunity' to revitalize" the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
"Both parties seem to have realized the potential for change inherent in the present situation," Under-Secretary-General Kieran Prendergast said, citing the smooth Palestinian transition after the death of President Yasser Arafat, the scaling back of Israeli military activity and the "critically important" dramatic drop in the Palestinian public's support for terrorism.
"There exists at present a real opportunity to implement the Road Map's provisions and to make a huge leap forward towards a settlement of the conflict," he added in reference to plan calling for parallel and reciprocal steps by both sides leading to two States living in peace by the end of 2005.
"But," he cautioned, "much work remains to be done if potential is to become achievement. We should make clear that we expect both Israel and the Palestinians to seize the moment to act constructively, and to work within the framework of the Road Map."
In a statement to the press after the briefing, Council President Abdallah Baali of Algeria welcomed Mr. Prendergast's assessment. "Members of the Security Council agree that the moment is propitious for movement to implement the Road Map and look forward to free, fair and open Palestinian elections," he said.
The Algerian Ambassador also encouraged the UN to continue providing full support to upcoming Palestinian presidential elections and to encourage parties "to do their utmost to ensure success of those elections."
Also on the election front, the UN Liaison and Support Unit will open its office in Ramallah on Saturday, a spokesman for the world body said today.
A satellite office will open in Gaza soon after, Stephane Dujarric told reporters in New York. The UN officers will act as an interface between the international observers and the Palestinian Central Electoral Commission.
Mr. Prendergast had hailed the smooth preparations to elect a new Palestinian president as well as Israel's role in contributing "meaningfully to enabling a positive transition period" by resuming security cooperation and taking other constructive measures.
"With the emergence of a more positive atmosphere, support among the Palestinian public for violent acts and terror against Israelis has declined dramatically," he said. "This is a critically important development."
While noting "with satisfaction and hope for the future" that the violence had dropped overall in the past month, he warned that "a disturbing level" still persists.
Palestinian militants continued to fire mortars and rockets against Israeli settlements and targets inside Israel, while Israel continued to carry out illegal extrajudicial killings, demolish houses and construct the "barrier" in the West Bank with "worrisome consequences" for the population there.
As well as the smooth Palestinian transition Mr. Prendergast cited as the other "catalyst" Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, noting that this "can represent a step forward - with highly symbolic, precedent-setting significance - on the road towards ending the occupation that began in 1967 and towards achieving lasting peace in the Middle East."
He said the UN, together with its diplomatic Quartet partners in the Road Map peace plan - the European Union (EU), Russia and the United States - stood ready to maintain the momentum.
"We believe now is the time to engage actively, help the process along and determine how best the international community can contribute to the revival of a sustainable peace process between Israelis and Palestinians," he added.
On the Syrian front, Mr. Prendergast noted that President Bashar al-Assad had reiterated a willingness to resume negotiations with Israel without conditions. "We believe that the outstretched Syrian hand should be grasped," he said welcoming a statement by Israeli Foreign Minister Sylvan Shalom today that Israel should not deny a hand reaching out for peace.
Video of Council meeting [23mins]