Australian Commonwealth Coat of Arms


18 January 2009

Press Conference – Perth

Subjects: Gaza; Visit to Australia by Netherlands Foreign Minister; Afghanistan; Israel.

STEPHEN SMITH: Firstly, the Australian Government very much welcomes the Israeli Government's announcement of a unilateral cease fire in the Gaza, and we very much hope that his leads to an end to the fighting.

We urge Hamas to reciprocate, and we continue to urge very much the diplomatic efforts which are occurring in Cairo, led by the Government of Egypt and supported very much by the Government of France, to bring United Nations Security Council Resolution 1860 into practical effect.

We also welcome the Memorandum of Understanding signed between Israel and the United States over the weekend, which is an agreement between the two countries to bring to an end arms smuggling occurring so far as Hamas and Gaza is concerned.

I spoke about this matter with Secretary of State Rice late Thursday night of last week, where she indicated that Israel regarded this as a very important part of bringing the fighting in the Gaza to a conclusion.

Can I also say that the Australian Government again underlines its very grave concern for the humanitarian situation in Gaza; we continue to be very acutely concerned about the victims so far as civilians are concerned, and this is the thing which has seen us urge consistently and continually support for the implementation of Resolution 1860, an end to the fighting and the attaining of a durable and fully respected cease fire.

So we welcome very much the announcement this morning of a unilateral cease fire by Israel, we urge Hamas to reciprocate and we continue to urge the practical implementation of Security Council Resolution 1860 to bring about a durable and fully respected cease fire.

Before I respond to your questions on Gaza, can I just make some remarks about the visit to Australia of the Netherlands Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen. The Foreign Minister has an official visit to Australia which commences today in Perth, he'll be here for a few days. I will be with the Foreign Minister this afternoon at the Perth Hockey Stadium where we'll both meet with the Australian and the Netherlands men's hockey team who are about to start a four test hockey series in Western Australia.

Tomorrow I'll have a formal bilateral meeting with Minister Verhagen and will also launch jointly a photographic exhibition at the Western Australian Museum.

There is a very good relationship, a very strong and positive relationship between the Netherlands and Australia. As you'd of course be aware we are partners in Afghanistan, in Oruzgan Province, where until 2010 the Dutch have the lead of the International Stabilisation Force in Afghanistan.

So we've been working very closely with the Netherlands on Afghanistan, and there's very much that we share with the Netherlands. The Netherlands, like Australia, are very strong supporters of nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, and the Netherlands is one of our important European partners.

One of the things I'll be discussing with Minister Verhagen will be the implementation of the Australia-European Union Partnership Framework which I signed with French Foreign Minister Kouchner in Paris in October last year when the French were the President, when the French held the Presidency of the European Union.

So very much look forward to greeting Minister Verhagen to Perth. Those hockey followers would know of course that in the last Olympics at Beijing Australia and the Dutch fought for the bronze medal which Australia was successful in. In Athens of course Australia defeated the Netherlands for the gold medal, and in Sydney of course in 2000 the Dutch won the gold medal after Australia was eliminated in the semi-final.

So there's a long-standing highly competitive relationship between Australia and the Netherlands so far as hockey is concerned, and both Minister Verhagen and I are long-standing hockey tragics. So we'll enjoy that with the Kookaburras and the Dutch team this afternoon.

But, on a more serious note, I'm happy to respond to your questions about Gaza or the Dutch minister's visit, or any other matter you wish to raise.

QUESTION: Minister, how realistic is a durable cease fire when the death toll is proportionately high in favour of Israel? In terms of isn't it just going to add fuel to the fire in terms of people joining Hamas and [indistinct]?

STEPHEN SMITH: The only way there will be durable peace in the Middle East is if in the first instance there is a fully respected and durable cease fire so far as the current conflict is concerned. That has to include Hamas ceasing its firing of rockets into Israel, and it has to include a cessation of the arms smuggling into the Gaza for use by Hamas.

But also, to see a durable peace in the Middle East, we have to have the acceptance of a two-nation state solution: a nation state for Israel within its borders but safe and secure within its borders, and a nation state for the Palestinian people, again within secure and defined borders.

We've seen regrettably terrible conflicts of this nature in the past and, whether we're horrified because we see civilian casualties in Gaza or civilian casualties in Israel, we're horrified because of all of these examples show the ongoing need for a long-term durable peace. And that can only be the acceptance of a two-nation state solution.

And, as the Australian Government has made clear, we see the cause and the start of this conflict as being Hamas firing 200 to 300 rockets into Israel in the course of November and December. But, equally, we only see, or we see the prospect for long-term peace in the Middle East as resting on a two-nation state solution.

In the first instance what we want to see in the Gaza we want to see an immediate end to the fighting and, in that context, we welcome very much the unilateral decision by Israel to announce a cease fire. But we want that to be a durable ceasefire, that's why we want Hamas to reciprocate. But just as importantly we want to see the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1860 which, in our view, will provide a durable cease fire so far as the current conflict is concerned and hopefully set the scene for a reestablishment of talks for a two-nation state solution.

QUESTION: [Indistinct] that Prime Minister Olmert is saying that his troops are going to remain in Gaza and Hamas are saying that they won't tolerate a single soldier...

STEPHEN SMITH: We welcome the fact that Israel has announced the unilateral end to the fighting. We want Hamas to reciprocate, but to get a durable cease fire of the current conflict we see that as requiring implementation of Security Council Resolution 1860. And that requires ongoing support of the diplomatic efforts currently underway in Cairo, led by the Egyptians, supported by the French, which involve both Israeli and Hamas officials.

So, whilst we welcome Israel's announcement of a cessation of fighting, we do want to see an effective cease fire. That requires Hamas reciprocating and it requires bringing those diplomatic efforts to a successful conclusion.

QUESTION: What makes this different, though, to, you know, we've seen flare-ups in the past in this part of the world, and then it sort of reverts back to the status quo unfortunately, and it all starts again. What is it that will change this situation this time?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well your question causes me to underline the point I made earlier: we've seen terrible conflicts in the past, not just over weeks or months or years but over decades. The only way that the international community and Israel and its neighbours in the Middle East can bring that to a cessation is by the adoption of a two-nation state solution.

I think that the international community having witnessed this terrible conflict, once this terrible conflict has been brought to a conclusion I think that will then see renewed efforts on the more general peace front. And I think that will particularly apply because of next week President-elect Obama coming to office. I think the international community will see the coming to office formally of President Obama as being a positive sign or a positive element in trying to breathe life back into durable peace settlement talks in the Middle East.

QUESTION: Do you think Israel would have gone quite this far if it wasn't so close to an election?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the Australian Government regards the cause, however so regrettable this conflict is and however so terrible this conflict is, we've made the point consistently that we regard the cause of this conflict as being Hamas firing 300 rockets into Israel in the course of November-December. That is not conduct which respects Israel's right to exist within defined borders in a peaceful and secure way.

QUESTION: Just in terms of Afghanistan, has the Dutch Government given you any indication of how long they're prepared to stay [indistinct] in Afghanistan?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, obviously Afghanistan will be one of the issues that Minister Verhagen and I will discuss. Let me make a number of general points: firstly, we applaud very much the Dutch efforts in Afghanistan over the last number of years, they've been a very significant contributor so far as a NATO member is concerned. Secondly, we have worked very closely and effectively with the Dutch. We're in Oruzgan Province, as are they, and they are effectively the International Force's leaders in Oruzgan Province.

The Dutch Government has made it clear that after 2010 they're not proposing to lead in Oruzgan Province, and we will simply let the Netherlands Government in due course indicate what ongoing contribution it will have in Afghanistan.

The Dutch make a significant military and also non-military contribution training and the building of civilian capacity, humanitarian or development assistance.

So what precise contribution the Netherlands make after 2010 will be a matter for the Netherlands Government at the time, but obviously that will be part of the conversation that I'll have with - with Minister Verhagen.

QUESTION: What sort of impact will that have on Australia's operation in Afghanistan if [indistinct] withdraw in 2010?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, these operational matters we take step by step. We've known for some time that by 2010 the Dutch will no longer be in the lead in Oruzgan Province. That, and what changed circumstances occur in Oruzgan Province obviously need to be the subject of discussion between Australia and its international partners including the United States. And that of course, on that timetable, will be the new Obama Administration.

But these operational matters and composition matters are always discussed amongst Australia and its partners, and so that obviously will be the subject of conversation in due course. But we have a considerable amount of time between now and when the Dutch finish their leadership role in Oruzgan Province.

QUESTION: Minister, is there a time frame for Australian withdrawal then?

STEPHEN SMITH: No, we've made it clear that we're there for the long haul. We believe that our contribution in Afghanistan is in Australia's national interest and in the international community's interest. We very much see Afghanistan and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area as being the ongoing hotbed of international terrorism, and regrettably Australia and other countries have been on the adverse receiving end of international terrorism in recent years. In Australia's case whether that be in Southeast Asia; in our European partners' case whether that be in Spain or elsewhere.

So we regard that as being an important contribution that we make. We know that it's dangerous and difficult work; we're there for the long haul and we don't put a timetable on it, we make these assessments as we go. But certainly from an overall strategic point it is important to Australia that the Afghan Government and the Afghan people over time are able to play a much greater role in their own safety and security. Which is one of the reasons why, in addition to our military contribution of up to 1100 troops, we make a substantial training and civilian capacity building contribution as well.

QUESTION: Is there any possibility of additional troops going when the Dutch...

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the Prime Minister, the Defence Minister and I have made it clear that we see our current contribution as being about right. We are the largest non-NATO contributor, indeed we contribute troops larger than the number, or a range of NATO countries. But we make a serious and substantial contribution, the largest non-NATO contribution, and we think that contribution in terms of its military capacity is about right.

I've made it clear in the past that Afghanistan won't be solved just by military action alone, it will be solved by securing peace, but also by giving the Afghan nation, the Afghan Government and the Afghan people the capacity to run and manage their own affairs. Which is why we also make a considerable contribution so far as training and capacity building is concerned and why I've always made it clear that we do see Australia as having the capacity to make a further contribution on the non-military side on the civilian capacity building and training front.

QUESTION: Can I just a comment from you about Australia's hopes for a new Israeli Government in terms of peace, given the [indistinct]?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, again, we take these things step by step. Today's announcement is a very significant announcement; we welcome that very much. We hope it's reciprocated and we see that as a very encouraging sign that hopefully the fighting in this particular conflict will end, and end soon.

The Israeli people have an election in February of this year. Just as Australia has worked positively and productively with the current Israeli Government, we will work positively and productively with the next Israeli Government.

But our policy approach with the new Israeli Government will be as it always has been for Australia: strong support for a peace process and peace settlement in the Middle East predicated on the basis of a two-nation state solution. A nation state for Israel within its defined borders but in a context of safety and security, but also a nation state for the Palestinian people, again within defined borders in a safe, peaceful and secure manner for the Palestinian people.

QUESTION: Does Australia have a preference for who should hold the reins of power?

STEPHEN SMITH: How the Israeli people vote and how they determine their democratic outcomes is entirely a matter for the Israeli people. We will respect that, whatever the outcome, and work positively and productively with the Israeli Government after the election as we do before, just as we work positively and productively with the Palestinian Authority.

When I was last in the Middle East in the last quarter of last year, not only did I meet with Foreign Minister Livni, I of course met with my Palestinian Authority counterpart Foreign Minister Al-Malki.

So we continue those productive and positive arrangements underpinned, as I say, by Australia's very strong commitment to a peace process and to ultimately securing a two-nation state solution in the Middle East.

Okay? Thanks very much.



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