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Jewish leader comments on the withdrawal of the Government's invitation to President Arafat to visit Australia

PETER CAVE: In an embarrassing backdown of its own, the Australian Government has withdrawn an invitation to the Palestinian President, Yasser Arafat to visit. The invitation was made personally to Mr Arafat by Deputy Prime Minister, Tim Fischer, who also invited the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. But last Friday the head of the Palestinian delegation to Australia, Ali Kazak, was advised by the Department of Foreign Affairs that the timing of Mr Arafat's visit was no longer appropriate, although the invitation to the Israeli Prime Minister will stand.

Mr Fischer told Isi Leibler, the chairman of the governing board of the World Jewish Congress, that a visit by the Palestinian President was no longer timely. And there's been speculation this morning that the Prime Minister's office had intervened. Reporter, Anne Delaney, asked Isi Leibler what Mr Fischer had said about the invitation being withdrawn.

ISI LEIBLER: From what I could gather, that because of the various divisiveness issues that were in the community at the moment, he felt that there would be no merit in having another issue which could cause divisiveness in the Australian community.

ANNE DELANEY: And when he was talking about divisiveness, is he referring to divisiveness amongst the Jewish and Palestinian population here in Australia or a broader divisiveness?

ISI LEIBLER: I think he was referring specifically to the fact that there were many issues that were dividing the Australian community and that he felt that at this stage he could see no advantage in having Chairman Arafat visiting Australia.

ANNE DELANEY: Did he make any reference whatsoever to Pauline Hanson and the impact that some of her ideas have created within the Australian community on race issues?

ISI LEIBLER: Not in direct context, but he did say that he assumed and understood that the Jewish community would be very concerned with the issues that have arisen as a result of Pauline Hanson.

ANNE DELANEY: What representations did you personally make to any member of the government about Mr Arafat's visit?

ISI LEIBLER: None whatsoever. And I have consulted a number of my colleagues in the Jewish community and, to the best of my knowledge, there have been no representations whatsoever made.

ANNE DELANEY: The head of the Palestinian delegation here in Australia is suggesting that there were representations made by the Jewish community. You're saying that that is totally false?

ISI LEIBLER: Totally false, and if there were representations made, I'd be quite happy to say so publicly, but there weren't. I think that the majority of Australian Jewish leaders would be very supportive of the peace process, and under normal circumstances would not be opposed to visits from Chairman Arafat. In this particular context the question was never put to them.

ANNE DELANEY: Do you personally think a visit from President Arafat would be appropriate in the current climate?

ISI LEIBLER: Look, I would not go out and publicly oppose a visit at this stage, but I would have said that having regard to the enormous tension which has developed in the Middle East at the moment between the Israelis and the Palestinians this would not be the ideal time for a visit. What I think the Government has done, and what I think in retrospect is probably appropriate is to say that if we're going to bring someone out as a visitor, this may not be the ideal timing.

ANNE DELANEY: So when do you think a visit by the legitimate head of the Palestinian people would be appropriate?

ISI LEIBLER: Well, as one of those who supports the peace process in the Middle East, I would hope that it will improve, and when some of the present tensions are overcome I would feel it would be much more appropriate for visits to be made. But I say that in the context of the decision that was made, not in terms of representations by the Jewish community which were not made.

ANNE DELANEY: Do you also think, then, that a visit by the Israeli Prime Minister would also be inappropriate at this point in time?

ISI LEIBLER: I don't think there's a need for visits of political leaders of Israel or the Palestinians in Australia at this moment in time. I think it would be much more appropriate when, hopefully, things are moving much better in the peace process.

PETER CAVE: Jewish spokesman, Isi Leibler.