Arafat still 'very important', says Cowen


EGYPT: The President of the Palestinian Authority, Mr Yasser Arafat, was "a very important figure" in ensuring acceptability of any Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, the Minister for Foreign Affairs said in Cairo yesterday at the start of a working visit to Middle East. Deaglán de Bréadún, Foreign Affairs Correspondent reports from Cairo.

 "He has been the foremost figure in Palestinian politics for very many years," Mr Cowen added.

The Minister was explaining why he intends going ahead with today's meeting with Mr Arafat at his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah, despite the fact that it has brought an Israeli government boycott down on his head. "The Irish Government, in pursuit of our foreign policy objectives, meet those whom we feel it is appropriate to meet," he said.

As a result of the proposed meeting with Mr Arafat, both the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Ariel Sharon, and Israel's Foreign Minister, Mr Silvan Shalom, have turned down requests from Mr Cowen to meet him. The Jerusalem Post called Mr Cowen's decision to meet Mr Arafat an "Irish snub" to Mr Sharon. Mr Cowen said he hoped to meet Israeli leaders on another occasion.

"Obviously we came to the region to meet everybody and, unfortunately, the present Israeli government position is that they are not available to meet people like myself in the event of our meeting with the President of the Palestinian Authority; certainly not in a position to meet us simultaneously on the same visit.

"I very much regret that. We are available of course to meet with our Israeli counterparts at any time. If, unfortunately, it cannot be included on this visit, I look forward to coming on another occasion and having detailed discussions with the Israeli government's Foreign Minister in the same spirit in which I am having them with our Arab colleagues," he said.

When asked if it was a mistake to meet Mr Arafat, who was not directly involved in current peace moves, he replied: "It is very important to point out that he is the President of the Palestinian Authority. He is a very important figure as far as the acceptability of any solution would be to the Palestinian people generally. He is, if you like, the symbol of the hope of self-determination for the Palestinian people. He has been the foremost figure in Palestinian politics for very many years."

The Minister added: "The reforms that have taken place, the appointment of Mahmoud Abbas as Prime Minister means that he is also a figure to be dealt with and a person with whom we have to discuss things. But I think both are people we have to have an involvement with, we have to have a discussion with, and as far as I am concerned the Irish Government, in pursuit of our foreign policy objectives, meet those whom we feel it is appropriate to meet."

During his one-day stopover in Cairo yesterday, Mr Cowen met the Secretary-General of the Arab League, Mr Amr Moussa, and the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Mr Ahmed Maher. In a joint press conference after their meeting, Mr Maher stressed the role that even a small country could play in the process.

"Ireland may be a small country, but it is big with its tradition of doing the right thing at the right moment and, over the years, Ireland has enjoyed excellent relations with the [Middle East] region. As a country that has itself been engaged in a peace process, I think they have a deep knowledge of how to handle these difficult moments.

"As President of the European Union next year, I think it will have an added value to its capacities, so we are confident that the role Ireland will continue to play is a role that will help the parties come together and will help peace to become the order of the day. We have an instrument, the Road Map; we have countries that are interested; and we have our Irish friends with whom we enjoy the best of relations and who have shown during the last years how interested they are in our problems," Mr Maher said.

Mr Cowen's next stop is the Palestinian Territories where, in addition to Mr Arafat, he is due to meet the Palestinian Authority Prime Minister, Mr Abbas, and the Foreign Minister, Mr Nabil Shaath. He will also visit Jordan, Syria and Lebanon in the coming days.