Downer Offers Condolences For Arafat, Calls For Renewed Peace Efforts

The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, has expressed the condolences of the Australian government to Yasser Arafat’s widow and to the Palestinian people.

Downer described Arafat as a “very significant leader”, but would not be drawn on his legacy. Downer said he hoped that “the Americans in particular will take the opportunity of recent events, as well as the re-election of President Bush, to promote … a new peace initiative in the Middle East.”

Transcript of comments made by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, at his electorate office in Adelaide.

DownerThe Australian government expresses its condolences to Yasser Arafat’s widow and to the Palestinian people on the death of Yasser Arafat. He was a very significant leader of the Palestinian people. He was much supported by the Palestinian people in their struggle to establish a Palestinian state and he will be missed by the Palestinian people very much. I know a large number of them will grieve his passing.

So we would take the opportunity to express our condolences, not just to his widow, but also to the Palestinian people, more broadly, on the death of their leader.

We very much hope with the recent passage through the Israeli Knesset of the legislation for the withdrawal of the Israeli settlements from Gaza that these significant upheavals in the region will lead to a new opportunity to pursue peace in the Middle East.

We very much hope that the Americans in particular will take the opportunity of recent events, as well as the re-election of President Bush, to promote peace in the … a new peace initiative in the Middle East.

I’ve raised with the Americans myself the Australian government’s view that these very significant changes that have taken place in the Middle East mean that a new effort needs to be made to try to get the road map implemented, to try to get the peace process back underway in the Middle East.

So, in the circumstance such as the death of Yasser Arafat, we express our condolence to the Palestinian people and I hope that as we go into 2005, there will be renewed and positive endeavours by all parties, including the Americans, to achieve a more peaceful Middle East.


What do you think will be Mr Arafat’s legacy?


Well, I think there’ll be obviously debate about that. This isn’t a day for us to participate in a debate about his legacy. This is a day for us just to reflect on how the Palestinian people will feel. And I, of course, know many Palestinians myself and I know the … that in the main the … well, I suppose he’s like any political figure. He didn’t have unanimous support, but … and the Palestinian people will very much grieve his death and I think the main thing for Australians today is to respect that and express their condolences.

Not for us today … I mean, people will do it in the next few weeks, of course, but today to get into some sort of national debate about Yasser Arafat’s legacy.


What about the choice of a successor? Does the Australian government have any concerns.


Sorry, the what?


The choice of a successor. Does the government have any concerns about how that might pan out?


Well, there are some good people. The Prime Minister, Qurei, is a good man. I don’t know him well. I know him a little. Made a visit to Australia just before he was the Prime Minister. He was the speaker before he was the Prime Minister and his predecessor, Abu Mazen, is also a very good man.

There are others, but this is going to be a matter for the Palestinians to sort out. They’ve obviously, though, to be frank, been giving quite a lot of thought to that over the last couple of weeks and doing a lot of work on that. So we would very much hope that there will be an easy transition to new leadership amongst the Palestinian people, but the new leadership will be leadership with true authority over the Palestinian territories and will be strong enough, not just to control violence and control the security forces in the Palestinian Authority, but also to have the capacity to negotiate and negotiate from a position of domestic strength with the Israelis.


Are there concerns that this might give rise to some disunity within the ranks of the PLO?


Well, there’s been a lot of disunity amongst not just the PLO or within the Palestinian Authority but amongst the Palestinian people. I mean, this has been part of the problem that, you know, you’ve got Hamas and other terrorist organisations. Look, the truth is they have quite a lot support in the Palestinian territories. You’ve got the PLO itself, the Palestinian Authority itself, there are different factions and different views, but our view today is that the important thing is that the Palestinian people understand the importance of having strong and united leadership, because if they have strong and united leadership then they will put them in a much better position to be able to negotiate an effective peace settlement with the Israelis, which is what we want to see.

So, this is an opportunity for them now to come together as a people and unite around their new leadership and hopefully that will happen. We’ll have to wait and see.


Will you be going to the funeral?


It’s not the normal practice in the case of Australia. Different countries have different practices but it’s not the normal case for us to send either me or other ministers to funerals. Our normal practice is to send our ambassador or a representative to represent us at funerals. So that is likely to be what we’ll do. We’ll just have to wait and see when all the details are complete. But I understand that at least a part of the funeral process is going to take place tomorrow, so I mean, just logistically it’s not really possible for us … well, it would be very difficult – technically possible I suppose – but very difficult for us to do that.

But our normal practice is for the ambassador or our representative to represent Australia at a funeral of this kind.

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