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Ministers discuss the current situation in the Middle East.

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ELEANOR HALL: Now to the Australian government’s position on the issue. The federal opposition has accused the Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, of acting like an Antipodean Henry Kissinger, warning that he’s overstating Australia’s influence in the Middle East. Mr Downer has said that he’s prepared to play a bigger role in helping to end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, citing Australia’s experience in bringing peace to the Asia Pacific.


But his Labor Shadow, Kevin Rudd, says that rather than complicating the situation, the government should be concentrating on supporting the United States Secretary of State Colin Powell’s mission to the Middle East. In Canberra, political correspondent, Mark Willacy.


MARK WILLACY: Only three days ago the opposition was accusing the Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, of sitting meekly on the sidelines of the Middle East crisis, but today Mr Downer is being compared with one of the 20th century’s most influential statesmen.


KEVIN RUDD: We seem to have had Minister Downer moving from a position of inertia to becoming something of an Antipodean Kissinger, seeing his role as bringing about peace where others have failed.


MARK WILLACY: Labor’s Foreign Affairs spokesman, Kevin Rudd, has been urging the minister to push the US into playing a more active role in seeking a Middle East cease-fire. And now that US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, is heading to the region, Alexander Downer is foreshadowing a more active role for Australia.


ALEXANDER DOWNER: Australia is happy to play a bigger role than just the role of making statements and participating in votes in multilateral organisations, in particular the United Nations. I think from Australia’s point of view, look, we’re inevitably going to be bit players in all of this but we should be prepared to play a role if it is asked of us and we should put our hands up and say that we would be prepared to play some sort of role.


MARK WILLACY: Mr Downer says Australia would be happy to look at any proposals, pointing to what he calls our experience in bringing peace to parts of the Asia Pacific region. Labor’s Kevin Rudd warns that the Prime Minister and his Foreign Minister must be careful not to overstate Australia’s influence.


KEVIN RUDD: What they see their view of Australian foreign policy as being is something little more than a Greek chorus to American decisions once they’re taken, rather than seeking to influence those decisions before they’re taken. I think it’s important to achieve what I describe as a right sense of Australia’s place in the world. We should not understate it, as I think we were in danger of doing last week by remaining silent, when I think voices in Washington needed our voice here to be heard as well. And we should not overstate it and overreach, which I think the Foreign Minister’s statements of the last 24 hours give some suggestion of.


MARK WILLACY: And already the Prime Minister, John Howard, has made it clear that the bigger role advocated by Alexander Downer will not include Australian troops being used in a peacekeeping role in any Middle East cease-fire.


JOHN HOWARD: You don’t have international peacekeeping forces without the permission of the governments of the territories where the peacekeepers are to go in, and we’re a long way from that. I don’t think the question of international peacekeeping forces arises at the present time. I think the most important thing is to try and end the current outbreak of violence and also to understand why it occurred.


MARK WILLACY: Labor agrees that Israeli troops must pull out of Palestinian controlled areas in the West Bank and that Palestinian suicide bombings must stop immediately. Kevin Rudd says the key to any breakthrough is the Middle East visit by US Secretary of State, Colin Powell.


KEVIN RUDD: The focus for this week is purely to bring about the success of Secretary Powell’s visit. The focus of last week was to try and get Secretary Powell to visit. What the focus will be next week is a separate matter again. So I don’t think it helps for the Foreign Minister this week to be flagging some independent Australian diplomatic initiative, or the possibility of one, when that is not the focus. But it’s simply, in my judgement, inappropriate for him to style himself after Henry Kissinger this week when the Secretary of State is actually doing the job in hand in the Middle East himself.


ELEANOR HALL: Labor’s foreign affairs spokesman, Kevin Rudd, ending that report from Mark Willacy.