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Thursday, 3 February 1994
Page: 344

Senator JONES —I refer the Minister for Foreign Affairs to a statement by Yasser Arafat, Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, that he hopes to sign an accord with Israel next week in Cairo. I ask: has the Australian government been advised on talks between Israel and the PLO on attempts to break the impasse over security which has delayed the start of Palestinian self-rule? What is the Australian government's assessment of the progress of these talks?

Senator GARETH EVANS —We have been encouraged both by the media reports and by our diplomatic reporting from Australian posts in the region that the PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, and Israel's Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, achieved a breakthrough in Davos last weekend. We very much hope that it will prove possible for Arafat and Peres to sign an agreement in Cairo next week, as has been foreshadowed. But at this stage it is not entirely clear how much work remains to be done on all the various security issues that have been the subject of recent negotiation. The key disputes are the question of control of the border crossings between Gaza and Egypt and between Jericho and Jordan, the size of the Jericho administrative area and the security of Jewish settlers in Gaza after the Israeli withdrawal.

  The declaration of principles that was signed in Washington on 13 September last year was the major breakthrough so far in the search for a comprehensive settlement, providing the framework for further negotiation and more detailed and complex agreements on withdrawal, and on the nature of Palestinian autonomy. Australia has recognised from the outset that that declaration of principles was only the first step in clearly a long and difficult journey. We see, however, the delay in the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho, originally scheduled for 13 December last year, as being disappointing, but as not undermining the accord.

  The most important consideration is that the leaders on both sides do still seem committed to the process. The government is confident that the remaining security disputes will soon be resolved in that atmosphere. We continue to urge all sides to maintain flexible negotiating positions. We are encouraged by the fact that neither side has said that the 13 April deadline for final withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho cannot be met. We will certainly continue to impress on both sides the importance that we in Australia attach to the timetable that was set out in the declaration of principles.