Statement by Deputy Minister Ebrahim Ebrahim on his Five Nation Tour of Middle East, 23 April to 2 May 2010, on 06 May 2010

Good Morning Members of the Media.

As you may all be aware, I recently concluded a five nation tour to the Middle East which took place from 23 to 2 May 2010 and included meetings in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Palestine (Occupied West Bank and Gaza) and Israel.  The visit was aimed at gaining a greater understanding of regional dynamics relating to the Middle East Peace Process (MEPP); the current political developments in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, the status of negotiations between Fatah and Hamas and the role of the Arab League, Egypt, Jordan and Syria in the MEPP.

During my discussions with various Ministers and high ranking Government officials in these countries, there seemed to be a general sense of caution as to the way forward with respect to the MEPP, given the current developments and Israeli insistence to continue building settlements in East Jerusalem, in violation of among others, the 2003 Road Map for Peace and the will of the international community. During all the discussions, we reasserted South Africa’s position that there should be a viable Palestinian State, on the basis of the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital, living side by side in peace with Israel.

This visit afforded us an opportunity to also observe first-hand the situation on the ground in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza. In this regard, we also received extensive briefings from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian (UNRWA) and the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OCHA).

During our interaction with Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian Senior Ministers and Government Officials, we were able to receive their countries’ perspectives on the Middle East Peace Process. On our part, we urged the Egyptian Government to continue with their efforts to bring about an agreement between Fatah and Hamas. We also agreed with our Syrian and Jordanian counterparts that there was a need for the international community to continue with capacity building initiatives in Palestine in order to prepare the structures for effective government once an independent Palestine was proclaimed.

We consistently conveyed and reiterated in our interactions with senior members of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), including Prime Minister Salam Fayyad the message of Palestinian unity.  In this regard we also stated that South Africa, because of our history could have a role to play in promoting a climate of reconciliation and unity among Palestinian parties.

During these discussions we also managed to obtain a briefing on the latest developments with respect to the impasse in negotiations between Israel and Palestine.  Both ourselves and the Palestian National Authority reiterated the need for a two-state solution to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.  We stressed that historically South Africa has had close ties with the PLO and we feel that the unity of the Palestinian people is critical to the success of the MEPP. We also indicated that the resolution of the Israeli / Palestinian conflict could possibly resolve other tensions in the region and lead to the normalisation of relations between Arab countries and Israel.

During the visit to Israel we also held discussions with Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lierberman. We used the opportunity with the Israelis to state our opinions with respect to the developments in the MEPP. We both expressed the sentiment that there should be resumption of direct negotiations between Israel and Palestine, as this would be the most effective method to take the peace process further.

Whilst in Israel, we also met with Arab politicians living in Israel in order to gain a deeper understanding of their situation and status. The discussions centered on the discrimination against Arabs living inside of Israel, particularly with respect to human rights violations and access to equal rights as citizens of Israel.

Lastly we visited the Gaza strip to assess for ourselves the situation there. The December 2008 / January 2009 Israeli invasion of Gaza and the resultant impact on the ordinary population of Gaza was noted with the deepest concern. Accordingly, we called on Israel to lift the humanitarian blockade of Gaza and to allow essential food stuffs and medicine into the area, and also to allow for the movement of building materials, essential for the rebuilding of Gaza, into the region. Once again, we used the opportunity to emphasize the need for Palestinian Unity and expressed the hope that all parties would work for a united Palestine to the benefit of ordinary Palestinians.

On behalf of the South African Government I expressed our deep admiration at the resilience of ordinary Palestinians living in Gaza to try to carry on, against all the odds, a normal daily existence.

We also noted with interest the fact that in celebration of the 2010 Football World Cup there was a mini World Cup tournament being held in Gaza where the different regions or camps adopted one of the World Cup finalist and were involved in a football tournament to find the “Gaza World Cup Champions.”

Q&A Session:

Question: Deputy Minister, did you meet anybody from Hamas? And also, could you give us your sense of the gaps still between Hamas and Fatah in terms of overcoming the differences within the Palestinian political establishment?

Deputy Minister: Well, yes, I did. When I went to Gaza I met with Prime Minister Ismael Hannyia. And, interestingly, he said that Hamas accepted the fact that there should be a two-state solution along the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as the capital. He went on and said that, I do not at the same time want to not want to recognize the state of Israel, because there was this question of the right of return of the exiled Palestinians. And he said that at this stage if he had recognized the State of Israel that would put a closure to the whole issue of the right to return. So, you can see that there is not much of a gap between the two parties. Both of them say that they accept a two-state solution. Both of them say that it should be along the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital and both parties expressed the need for unity between Hamas and the Fatah Movement. And they felt that Israel is, off course, hampering the whole peace process. Hamas' view is that you cannot have a great final solution to the Palestinian issue without Hamas' participation and without Gaza being included into the whole process. So, yes, we did meet Hamas and they are very keen to move ahead with the negotiations as far as the two parties are concerned. They said there was an initiative by Egypt, but they had some problems with that initiative and they hoped to iron that out sooner or later. Thank you.

Question: Just a quick comment, Mr. Minister, on the death of President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua of Nigeria?

Deputy Minister: Oh, yes. Thank you for that, and our President has already expressed South Africa's condolences on the death of the former President. We are very sad of the loss to the Nigerian people. He was regarded as a jewel of Nigeria and I think that it is a great loss, not only to the Nigerian people, but to the region and the continent. We also would like to congratulate the new President. I saw in the news that the new President has now being sworn in and we would like to express our congratulations and trust that he will continue the good work of the former President. And we think that the stability of Nigeria is very important, and not only for the region, but for the continent as a whole. Thank you.

Question: Moving on to other subjects. The passage of the renewal of the Western Saharan peacekeeping mandates has no provision for the safeguarding of human rights in it. What is the South African position on that? Do we want the United Nations Security Council to safeguard human rights in Western Sahara or to see that it is safeguarded, and the position on negotiations between the Polisario and the government of Morocco, the occupying government?

Deputy Minister: Well, we were disappointed that the United Nations Report, the Secretary General Report, did not go into the human rights issue. I think that the demands of the Polisario were that in any report coming out from the United Nations, they should also investigate the human rights violations by Morocco. And we firmly believe that the United Nations should also deal with the human rights issue and the violation of human rights in the Western Sahara, the Sahara, and the People's Republic. Of course, we have always maintained that there should be a resolution to the problem on the basis of, the people of Western Sahara should decide whether they want autonomy, some type of autonomy with Morocco or they should vote for self-determination. It seems that the Moroccans are keen to get them to vote for autonomy, but they are not prepared to get them to decide on the question of self determination.

Question: Deputy Minister, just to get back to your visit to Israel and Palestine. You had a meeting with Lieberman, which I understand is on the right side of the coalition in the Israeli government. Is there a sense that the sympathies, you know, towards Israel, the Israeli situation is waning? That people are, can they, do people have this kind of feeling? Did they express to a sense that maybe the support for Israel is on the wane? It is like, getting less in that regard? Well, what was the sense of the meeting you had?

Deputy Minister: Well, I got a sense in the region itself; although I said that there is caution as far as the Israeli peace process is concerned. There is also a feeling of pessimism on whether the peace process is going any further. When we met, the Secretary-General of the Arab League, and he insisted that if there is going to be any further negotiations, there has to be definite timeframes. He said that they have been caught up for 20 years in this whole question of process and process and process, and they do not want any further processes. There should be a definite timeframe. As far as the Israelis are concerned, our meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister, he agreed that there had to be direct negotiations.

He did not say whether he accepted a two-state solution along the 1967 border, but he felt that the Palestinians should be assisted in the economic development of the region where they are. But, he agreed that there has to be direct negotiation between the two parties. In the region, of course, there is a sense that some type, I get a sense that there is some type of tension that is beginning to build up in the region. That if there is no further progress on the Palestinian-Israeli issue, something may actually blow up in the region. I was told while I was in the region that public opinion, even in the United States, is beginning to change. And the United States and the Quartet is very keen that within the two years as the Quartet has said, there should be some type of solution to the Palestinian and Israeli problem. And there is also a feeling that they have to have a regional approach, because of the problems in Afghanistan and in Iraq, and the problem with Iran, there is a need for this Palestinian-Israeli issue to be resolved as quickly as possible, an resolved justly as acceptable to all the parties. Thank you.

Question: Sorry. Can I just ask a follow-up to my previous question? Do you see an inconsistency in Hamas' position in that it agrees to a two-state solution but not recognizing the state of Israel? I mean, is that, is that logically reconcilable?

Deputy Minister: Well, sometimes it is difficult to reconcile positions. You see, if they accept a two-state solution, which means they have to do it in negotiation with Israel, which means a de facto recognition of Israel. They are saying, well, they are prepared to have a 20 years or 30 years truce with Israel, but not recognizing Israel as such. But I think it is something that has got to do with political grandstanding rather than the reality in the area. If you want to have a peaceful resolution of the conflict, you have got to negotiate. One of the parties of course is Israel, and it is a de facto recognition that Israel is there. In a two-state solution there will be a state called Israel, recognized internationally as a legitimate state. But, they are saying that unless, until the right of return is resolved, they were not prepared to recognize Israel. Thank you.

Question: This is something that I saw a small report on, a movie called Pudros, or something like that, which I think is an Israeli-Palestinian film, which looks at passive resistance in the region between, or as a tool for Palestine to use in the negotiations system. Did something like that come up in any of your meetings with them? With Hamas, or Fatah?

Deputy Minister: Well, yes, in Palestine, in the region as a whole they speak about resistance, resistance to occupation if there is no forward movement in the peace process. And they always said, this resistance should be non-violent. Now, obviously, you see, non-violent resistance, some Palestinians are saying that even non-violent resistance, the Israelis has brutally suppressed any non-violent resistance. If you look at the occupied territory, the Wall, the checkpoints, etcetera, it is difficult even for the Palestinians to move from one area to the other. And non-violent resistance has its own challenges, you see. But they keep on talking about resistance. They said that the peace process doesn't go forward. There has to be some type of resistance, but what form it would take. Interestingly, even in Gaza Hamas told us that they have completely stopped rocket attacks against Israel, and whoever conducts a rocket attack, they would be arrested and punished. So they have a complete ceasefire. And they have said that if there is going to be any resistance, it should take the form of non-violent resistance, without spelling out exactly how and what form this non-violent resistance is going to take place.

Question: In respect to Egypt, Jordan and Syria, did you discuss the Iran nuclear issue? And if so, what was the feeling?

Deputy Minister: It didn't come up in that sense. But the region was saying that Turkey and Iran are two important players in the region. And the feeling was that Iran could play a very positive role, because it is a power in the region if it could resolve its problem with the United States of America. And they said that they think that Egypt and Iran are becoming increasingly important players in the region. But the problem with Iran of course is the issue it has with the United States of America. And if it could resolve that problem with the United States, it could become a positive force in the region.

Question: of the Press: And nuclear weapons and cooperation with IAEA?

Deputy Minister: Well, the Iranians said that they have no intention of developing nuclear weapons. Even the Supreme Leader said the other day said that it would be un-Islamic. But they have problems with the United States. And, of course, we have always in our interaction with Iran asked them to cooperate fully with the IAEA, to verify all the issues that they had with the IAEA and fully cooperate with them. But, I think that they have to resolve their problem with the United States and with the Western countries, and in that sense, they could become a positive force in, even in, they could assist with the problems in Iraq and in Afghanistan if they were able to resolve some of the problems with the IAEA and with the United States and the Western world.

Question: Did you get a sense that (unclear) they would recognize that they [unclear] security of the West Bank, as part of the process of improving the climate of peace talks?

Deputy Minister: Well, his main concern was the economy, and he said that, and the building of the Palestinian institution, and he said that if they could build the economy. Someone said that there was an 8% growth in the West Bank. Now, this came from the Israelis, but I was not able to confirm that with the Palestinians. And because of his background, was very keen on the economic activities and the growth of the economy. Of course, the checkpoints and the Wall, etcetera, hampered the growth of the Palestinian economy. But within all those constraints I think that Fayyad seems to have done quite well in the economic sector as well as the Palestinians are concerned.

Convener: Thank you very much, Minister. I take it we have exhausted the Q&A. We would like to take this opportunity to ask the Minister to give an update of the Minister's programme for the next three weeks just for information, Minister, please?

Deputy Minister: Yes, the Minister is presently in the People's Republic of China. She is attending what is called the Shanghai Expo. And, of course she will also be going on to Belgium, where the South Africa and EU meeting will be held. That will be on the 11th of May. And, I could inform you that the Deputy President is going to Turkey from the 22nd to the 26th of May 2010. It is an official state visit to Turkey. And, as you know, the President is in Tanzania, attending the World Economic Forum there. It is just for your information, for the media, so that you can follow up, and whatever happens in these areas. I thank you.

Convener: Thank you very much Minister.

For more information contact Chief Director for Public Diplomacy, Mr Saul Molobi on 082 940 1647.

Issued by the Department of International Relations and Cooperation
Private Bag X152
Pretoria, 0001

07 May 2010.

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