As Nelson Mandela is laid to rest, the world is reminded that making peace requires great leadership, vision and commitment. I salute the courageous decision of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas in entering into direct negotiations to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And I wholeheartedly commend the tireless efforts of US Secretary of State John Kerry in support of this process. The current negotiations are a unique opportunity to resolve this conflict, which must not be squandered.
The United Kingdom, like many countries, knows the pain associated with making peace. For decades, the United Kingdom faced a wave of terrorism as a result of the conflict in Northern Ireland. Well over a thousand civilians were murdered by paramilitaries. Almost as many British soldiers and police officers were killed. A member of the Royal Family was assassinated, and an attempt was made on the life of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Across the country, from London to Belfast, Birmingham to Manchester, soldiers and civilians, police officers and religious leaders, men, women and children died as a result of the violence and suffered as a result of the conflict.
And yet, in the 1990s, the British government agreed to release early hundreds of people convicted of crimes, including terrorism, as part of efforts to secure peace in Northern Ireland. It was a painful, controversial decision. Yet we firmly believed it was the right one.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has also taken its toll on both sides, with a mounting cost in human life and dignity.
Netanyahu and Abbas have also taken controversial decisions to advance peace. Netanyahu has agreed to release prisoners. Abbas has vowed not to seek to upgrade Palestinian status in the U.N. while there are negotiations. The challenge for both leaders now is to make progress in the negotiations and prevent any actions which undermine this -- such as settlement expansion and incitement to violence.
But peace is never brought about by the action of leaders alone. As experience shows -- whether in South Africa or Northern Ireland -- ordinary men, women and children, civil society groups and the international community all play a vital role in bringing about peace.
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland was sealed with a referendum in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in which an overwhelming majority of the population voted in favor. This followed years of popular pressure on leaders to make peace. The United States also played a crucial role in helping bring about peace in Northern Ireland, as they have done in trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Now too the Israeli and Palestinian populations must help create the conditions for their leaders to make peace. The U.K. stands ready to play its part. That is why the U.K. was a strong advocate in Europe for Foreign Affairs Conclusions this month which state that the EU will offer a major, unprecedented, package of political, economic and security support to both parties in the context of a final status agreement. Israel and the future state of Palestine will benefit from a Special Privileged Partnership with deeper political cooperation, increased access to European markets, facilitation of trade and investment, closer cultural and scientific links and a step change in security cooperation.
I believe that Netanyahu and Abbas can make peace. Israelis and Palestinians will need to do everything in their power to make these talks a success. The U.K., with its international partners, will give them its full support.
Negotiations will not be easy. But peace will bring huge rewards.
William Hague is the British foreign secretary.