FM Silvan Shalom told a joint press conference with his Egyptian counterpart Ahmed Abul Gheit today that this is a time of renewed hope in the Middle East.

 Excerpts from joint press conference by FM Shalom and Egyptian FM Abul Gheit


FM Silvan Shalom and Egyptian FM Ahmed Abul Gheit (Reuters/Gil Cohen Magen)

Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told a joint press conference with his Egyptian counterpart Ahmed Abul Gheit today that this is a time of renewed hope in the Middle East, particularly with regard to the upcoming elections in the Palestinian Authority.

“Israel is determined to maintain the momentum,” Shalom said at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, thanking Egypt for its key role in helping to stabilize the PA by strengthening its moderate forces. “All are interested in a responsible Palestinian leadership,” noted Shalom.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Abul Gheit said he feels Israel is determined to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and that Egypt and Israel understands the need to increase cooperation and to focus on bilateral issues. He noted that Egypt and Israel are close to an agreement on enhancing security along the Gaza Strip southern border. Egypt is not offering its troops, but will retrain Palestinian forces for this purpose, he said.

Shalom noted that the activities of the committee on bilateral cooperation have been renewed on a number of topics, particular tourism between Egypt and Israel.

In response to a question, Gheit said he believes Syrian peace overtures are sincere and that Israel should pursue negotiations. “I’d encourage Israel to engage in talks with Syria,” he said.

Shalom noted that Syria must first prove the seriousness of its intentions by its deeds: by acting against terrorism, particularly the terrorist organizations based in Damascus.

Abul Gheit said he brings no message to Israel regarding the Syrian track, but that Syria was always willing to trade land for peace in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions. He added that the recent meeting between Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Syrian President Bashar Assad involved only “preliminary contacts” on Syrian-Israeli issues.

Shalom noted that preliminary talks with Syria were broken off, because their existence was leaked. He said Israel is always willing to talk with the Syrians, whether publicly or secretly, but talks cannot take place under the threat of terrorism.

Excerpts from the Press Conference

Israeli FM Silvan Shalom: It is my great pleasure to host my colleagues, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit and Minister Omar Soliman, Head of Egyptian Intelligence, here in Jerusalem.

They come at a time of renewed hope in the Middle East. The forthcoming elections in the Palestinian Authority constitute a real opportunity to create a positive momentum for peace. Israel is determined to work closely with Egypt to ensure that this opportunity is seized. We welcome Egypt’s recent direct contacts with the Palestinian leadership. Egypt can and should, play a key role in the effort to bring calm and stability to the Palestinian Authority. Furthermore, Egypt can and should strengthen the moderate forces inside the Palestinian Authority.

In our meeting today we discussed how Egypt’s involvement can be used best in order to ensure an end to terror and the return to negotiations in accordance with the Roadmap. It is in the interest of us all that a responsible Palestinian leadership guides its people in this direction.

The visit also provides us with a welcome opportunity to promote the bilateral relationship between our two countries. These full relations between Israel and Egypt have been the foundation of regional stability in the Middle East for 25 years and will continue to be so in the future. Both countries have much to gain from enhancing the dialogue and cooperation between us and I hope that together we will be able to make progress towards closer and more productive ties in the weeks and months ahead.

I am committed to working with Foreign Minister Abul Gheit and Minister Soliman to ensure that our relations continue to grow to the benefit of the citizens of both our countries and the region as whole. Once again it is my pleasure to welcome both Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit in his first visit to Israel as Foreign Minister and Minister Soliman who is a frequent and welcome visitor here.

Egyptian FM Ahmed Abul Gheit: The purpose of this visit by General Soliman and myself, is to enhance the emerging environment between Israel and the Palestinians, to prepare a conducive environment aimed at launching the process anew. We discussed what is required in order to achieve that objective, how Israel is called upon to facilitate and to contribute positively to the Palestinian process of getting their elections according to the schedule the Palestinians are laying down.

We also discussed the issue of how to implement the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in full, as well as from the northern parts of the West Bank and how to do this in context of the Roadmap. We also discussed the bilateral Egyptian-Israeli situation, how to push forward. We touched upon the very sad horrific incident that took place in Rafah with the killing of the three Egyptian policemen, the anger that prevailed in Egypt, the investigation that has been carried out, and we feel that we need to focus further on issues of bilateral nature.

A lot in the Middle East depends on how we would conduct ourselves between Palestine and Israel, how the Palestinian state is to emerge. And that is something that we value very much.

Q: First question for Minister Abul Gheit. Did you raise the Syrian issue in both your meeting with Prime Minister Sharon and with Foreign Minister Shalom and how determined is Israel to implement the disengagement plan as part of the Roadmap, in your eyes?

FM Abul Gheit: From whatever I heard today from the Prime Minister as well as the Foreign Minister, I feel that Israel is determined to withdraw and that the Israeli leadership understands the necessities of the situation. The Prime Minister reiterated anew his commitment to the Roadmap; that is on the Palestinian issue. We didn’t touch on the Syrian track with the Prime Minister. However, we tackled it very briefly with the Foreign Minister. There have been talks between Egypt and Syria, touching on a range of issues, but I didn’t carry any message to Israel on the Syrian track. However, my understanding is that Syria is willing, has been always willing to engage in discussions and in negotiations with Israel, but according to two points: the principle of land for peace and the implementation of the resolutions of the Security Council. So, if that would be the order of the day then a process would be launched here, too.

My opinion is that I would encourage very much Israel engaging with Syria on discussions according to whatever would be agreed upon between both, meaning the terms of reference for the resumption of negotiations and objective of such negotiations. It won’t be the first time that negotiations have taken place. There have been negotiations over the last ten years.

Q: Did you have any impression from the Syrians that they are willing to send the Syrian President here, is he willing to come to Jerusalem, as Sadat did, with no preconditions?

FM Abul Gheit: The issue of President Assad’s visit to Jerusalem was not raised and it was not discussed in any way. The issue is when you want to negotiate and to initiate a process, then that will come through negotiations. A process will come through negotiations. If you sit by without engaging the other side, then you will not achieve anything. That is the logic of negotiations aiming at a peaceful settlement of whatever dispute you have with your neighbor.

FM Shalom: (Hebrew) I received an update on the meeting yesterday between President Mubarak and President Assad. Israel’s hand is always outstretched for peace with any state that wants to make peace with us. Of course, if Syria’s intentions are serious, it must prove it through actions. If this happens, Israel will be prepared to open negotiations immediately. But actions mean not granting protection to terrorism directed against Israel’s citizens. Damascus’ support for terrorist organizations, be it the Hamas, Islamic Jihad or Hizbullah, does not convey a message of peace. This support must cease.

In previous talks with the Syrians they raised a number of issues. These were only preliminary discussions with people close to President Sadat, which were conducted a year and a half ago in the shadow of the war in Iraq. These contacts were meant to lead to higher level talks, but unfortunately came to an end after the contacts became public.

Israel has always been prepared for contacts with any Arab state, whether publicly or secretly. But the situation today, in which Syria grants protection to terrorist organizations, harms not only Israel and the chances to negotiate with Israel, but also the moderate Palestinian leadership, by not enabling it to carry out what is required – namely to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure.

Q: [On preventing weapons smuggling along the Israel-Egypt border]

FM Shalom: A few months ago already, on my visit to Cairo, with the President, I was instructed by the Prime Minister to come to an agreement that we will find out what there needs to be done in order to put an end to the smuggling of weapons that is coming from the border, the Philadelphia buffer zone. It was agreed that even though the Egyptians are not allowed to have more troops on the Egyptian side of the border, it will be reconsidered, and it looks that we are very close to achieving an understanding between Israel and Egypt about the number of soldiers that will be there, about the number of weapons and the kind of weapons that will be permitted to hold there and while it will be agreed, of course, you will be the first one to know, but we are very close.

FM Abul Gheit: The issue of Salah e-Din corridor, as it is called in the Egyptian media, we are asking that we will be enabled to retrain them, to strengthen their ability to project themselves on that area too.

We are not offering Egyptian troops or personnel into the Palestinian areas. We are asking the Palestinians to send us their personnel in order for them to be retrained in Egypt. According to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, there are certain areas of limitation of forces and personnel in areas adjoining the borders. This is what Foreign Minister Shalom was talking about. So the ability of Egyptian personnel, the police forces, to project themselves on that area has been empowered because of the limitations of such numbers of personnel.

Q: [On Israel-Egypt bilateral relations]

FM Shalom: (Hebrew) We are fully coordinated with Egypt on many matters. We also discussed our bilateral relations, and today we decided to renew the work of the Israel-Egypt bilateral committee. There are many issues on the agenda between us – gas, free trade zone, tourism, and more. We want to work together on this, and we see a real willingness on the Egyptian side to do so.