High Rep Ashton: "I’ve welcomed the new policy of the Israeli government as an important step forward. As I’ve always said, Israel’s new policy should improve the lives of the ordinary people of Gaza, while addressing the legitimate security concerns of Israel."

FM Liberman: "I think that after all our gestures of goodwill it is time to commence with direct talks rather than waste time or seek to buy time. We hope that you can also convince the Palestinian Authority to start immediately with direct talks without any preconditions."

 Joint press conference: FM Liberman and EU High Rep Ashton


Israel FM Liberman and EU High Rep Ashton in Jerusalem (Photo: Reuters)

Joint press conference with Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Avigdor Liberman and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton
Jerusalem, 18 July 2010

High Rep Ashton: Thank you very much. I’ll begin by saying how pleased I am to be in Israel today, I’ve had a constructive and productive meeting with Foreign Minister Liberman. As you know, this is my second visit to the region in my capacity as High Representative Vice President. Yesterday I met with Prime Minister Fayyad, and today I visited Gaza and Sderot. I’ve also met with Minister of Defense Barak and will be meeting later this evening Prime Minister Netanyahu.

There are three main objectives for my visit in Israel. First, to discuss the situation in Gaza. I’ve welcomed the new policy of the Israeli government as an important step forward. As I’ve always said, Israel’s new policy should improve the lives of the ordinary people of Gaza, while addressing the legitimate security concerns of Israel.

The position of the European Union is clear – the blockade is unacceptable, unsustainable and counter-productive, and not in the interests of any of those concerned. As I’ve discussed with Foreign Minister Liberman, if we can be of value and the parties agree, we are ready to support a smooth handling of goods at the crossings based on the agreement on movement and access. I fully agree that Israel’s security is of paramount importance in moving ahead…

FM Liberman: Of course, we appreciate your meeting today with the people of Sderot and the mayor of Sderot and I think this sends a very positive signal to our society.

We discussed many issues in our last meeting, including regional security, other regional issues and bilateral relations between the EU and Israel. Allow me to will start with our bilateral relations.

I think that the timing is right and we have the opportunity to move forward with the action plan and implement the action plan that we confirmed two years ago. We hope to upgrade our relations with the EU as soon as possible.

The second point of course is the direct talks and we think that, after all our gestures of goodwill, it is time to commence with direct talks rather than waste time or seek to buy time. We hope that you can also convince the Palestinian Authority to start immediately with direct talks without any preconditions.

We also discussed the issues regarding our relations with all our neighbors, the Iranian issue and Gilad Shalit, and of course our new policy regarding the Gaza Strip. We explained and the High Representative witnessed today with her own eyes the situation at the crossings. Israel has adopted a new and liberal approach towards Gaza. We have already substantially increased the flow of goods into Gaza so that every day hundreds of trucks enter containing a broad range of goods including food items and construction materials.

We think that it is not enough, and we are really looking for a serious partner to improve the economic situation. The economic situation can be improved, and we can provide a boost to the economy and give hope to the people of Gaza with big projects like power stations and desalination plants and, of course, purification of wastewater. We hope that we can receive some commitments from the European countries and the EU for these projects.

Q: You were in Gaza today; now you are saying that Gilad Shalit should be released without delay. Did you have a chance to say this to the relevant people in Gaza, namely Hamas? And if not, what good is the rest?
The second question to Mr. Liberman: Minister Liberman, could you tell us what are your expectations from the meeting with the Prime Minister, concerning the issue is that surfaced today and made the headlines and took up acres of newsprint?

High Rep Ashton: I did not meet with Hamas; I do not meet Hamas. I made the point in the press conferences: the European Union does not meet with Hamas. I think that it is very, very important nonetheless that we are very clear about the importance of the release of Gilad Shalit. I recognize, as I have said already, the trauma for his family and will meet with his family tomorrow; I have already met with his father in Europe, and I want it to be well known and understood in Israel how much significance we put on this.

FM Liberman: I have already had discussions yesterday with the Prime Minister. I spoke of more than 20 meetings that I held with foreign ministers of the OSCE. We spoke in detail also about his visit today in Egypt , of course. I will continue to discuss with the Prime Minister all the issues concerning direct negotiations with the Palestinians and the new ideas about the Gaza Strip as well as about a number of riveting encounters that we will have this week with the Prime Minister of Greece and with the Ukrainian Foreign Minister and so on and so forth… The other issues we will address tomorrow at the Knesset.

Q: Foreign Minister Liberman, there have been reports that you have been pressing to have Israel sever its ties with the Gaza Strip. You mentioned desalination and power plants that will involve Israel giving up its responsibility for the Gaza Strip. Can you expand on that; and, Ms. Ashton, was this discussed in your meeting now? And what do you think of such a plan?

FM Liberman: First of all I think we have a big problem. We are suffering – and by this I mean all peoples of this region: Israelis, Palestinians and others – from a shortage of drinking water and electricity. I believe that it is really on the humanitarian level that we can move forward, prior to any political solution. I think that a project of this category like a power station can resolve the real problems, while a desalination plant, of course, can improve the economic situation. I think that at least on these two levels – economy and security – we can move forward much more expeditiously than on the political level.

High Rep Ashton: As I have consistently said, the solution is a two-state solution in line with what has been said by the Quartet and by the European Union on many occasions, but most recently over the last few months, and Gaza should be part of that. I have made this position clear for Foreign Minister Liberman; he knows well where I stand and where the European Union stands on that.

In terms of some of the economic issues that we have discussed, I am very keen that we are able to provide for the ordinary people of Gaza a better life than the one that I saw today and, to do that, we need to do a number of things. One is to find ways to support the economy; two, is finding ways to increase the potential – not least, as I have been saying on a number of occasions today, by allowing exports to come out of Gaza. All done within the framework of a complete understanding that the security of Israel is extremely important in this and needs to be assured.

Q: The first question is about East Jerusalem. You spoke about what is happening there. Did you have any discussions with Mr. Liberman about what is happening in East Jerusalem?
Mr. Liberman, could you please expand on the plan that you presented in Yediot Aharonot last Friday. Was the Prime Minister aware of it and does he agree with it?

High Rep Ashton: I think that we have been consistent in saying that we are concerned that any of the issues that we have been discussing should not get in the way of the talks, and my fear about East Jerusalem is seeing changes that will affect our capacity to come to a solution. In so far that this is part of the broader dialogue we have indeed discussed those issues today, but I have not raised East Jerusalem as a specific issue beyond it being part of the broader issues. But it continues to concern me, as I have indicated, that, if we are going to get to a solution, we need to avoid measures that make it harder for us to get there.

FM Liberman: With regard to the plan that was published last Friday, you know I have the highest esteem for my people from the diplomatic staff who worked very hard and prepared a very detailed and serious document, which is definitely worthy of serious reference. But it was not approved – neither in the inner Cabinet, nor in the Government, nor by the Septet. And this perhaps is still the first occasion that we are talking in these directions. I most definitely updated the Prime Minister with regard to the ideas that are being formulated here at the Foreign Ministry. I must note that yesterday I had discussions with more than 20 foreign ministers in an informal encounter with the OSCE foreign ministers and all expressed an interest. There were many questions raised and many comments, but I did not encounter opposition.

You must understand that on two issues there is total agreement between the European Union and Israel, i.e. the need to improve the economic conditions in the Gaza Strip, and not via the activity of Hamas but the reverse. We must be insistent that all the economic development in the Gaza Strip will be performed via the United Nations and its agencies or as direct projects of the European Union and the member states of the European Union. The second matter is the amelioration of the security situation, both for us and for the Palestinian population. The entire issue of the crossings is related first and foremost to the issue of security. To what extent will we prove capable of preventing the smuggling of arms and sabotage materiel?

Q: You spoke about Europe being ready to support a smooth transition of goods into the Gaza Strip. Will that include sending forces to once again stand at the border, for example between Egypt and Rafah? And you also spoke about the need to move forward to direct talks. Do you think that President Obama was reasonable in his assumption that this could happen within three months, before the end of the proximity talks period that the Arab League set? And what would Europe be willing to do to get the sides to move towards those talks?

High Rep Ashton: The first thing is that I would not use the word "forces" because that has particular connotations, as you know. What we have been looking at is examining options within the European Union of how best we might be able to support the Palestinian Authority, particularly at the crossings, in ways that would ensure the smooth transition of goods but also of course enhance and make sure that we were helping Israel in terms of the security issues. That we have been working on. We are now at the point that we are looking to see whether there is a proposition that comes to us that says actually we could be of help and this is what we consider doing and then we will take that forward. And that is where we currently stand on that.

In terms of the second question, which was about President Obama and the way forward in terms of talks. I sincerely hope that George Mitchell’s work here – and I pay tribute to everything that he has done, and I saw him yesterday – will enable a move to full talks to begin as soon as possible. He certainly has done a fantastic job in working between the two parties in order to achieve that, and I honestly believe that the time is ripe to try to achieve that as soon as possible. As you know, there are lots of issues in September. So it is a good time to really think whether we can get the talks moving in August.  Thank you.

FM Liberman: Thank you very much.