SYDNEY, Australia (Mar. 29)
Australian Jewish groups say they will not join any expected criticism of Australia’s prime minister for his planned meeting with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.
John Howard, who announced that he will be visiting the Middle East in the coming weeks during a radio interview, would be the first Australian prime minister to meet Arafat.
Diane Shteinman, immediate past president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, said the group regards it as “perfectly legitimate” for the Australian leader to meet Arafat, and that the peace process, if successful, would benefit both Israel and the Palestinians.
The executive director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, Colin Rubenstein, said Howard’s meeting with Arafat is both “predictable” and “acceptable given the advanced state of peace negotiations.”
Australian Jewish organizations had strongly criticized past meetings between senior Australian political figures and the PLO.
Stressing that he would not have done so a few years ago, Howard said during the interview, “Israel and the Palestinians are now talking to each other in a very effective way and the Israeli prime minister is, I am sure, keen that any foreign visitor to his country also have the opportunity of meeting the Palestinian leader.
“There are a lot of people who on occasion you might meet who have had a terrorist background,” he said.
The strongest criticism of the planned visit has so far come from supporters of the Irish Republican Army, who claim that the prime minister is hypocritical for agreeing to meet Arafat while refusing meetings with that organization’s leadership.