Jerusalem, 26 June 2005 - In Jerusalem today, Minister for Foreign Affairs Ursula Plassnik described the time of her first visit to Israel as Foreign Minister as "a moment of hope and chances to make tangible progress on the long road to peace and security in the region". "Despite all the concerns and fears, a lot of encouraging things have happened over the past few months. Right now, the joint task of Israel, the Palestinians and their partners in the world is to make the withdrawal from Gaza a success", continued Plassnik. Defining the goals of her working visit, which she is making at the invitation of her Israeli counterpart Silvan Shalom, Plassnik added: "The objective of my visit is to strengthen our bilateral relations, which are already showing a very positive development, and to underline the traditional Austrian and European commitment to the region. Furthermore, particularly in the lead-up to Austria's Presidency of the European Union in the first half of 2006, our aim is to obtain first-hand information on the situation in the Middle East, and especially the Peace Process."
Following the laying of a wreath in the Hall of Names at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, working talks with President Katsav and Foreign Minister Shalom were next on the Foreign Minister's agenda. Plassnik: "Prime Minister Sharon's decision to withdraw from Gaza is a courageous step. Now it is absolutely essential that the withdrawal is effected peacefully and in cooperation with the Palestinian side. In this context, it is especially important that the living conditions of the Palestinian population are also improved." As the Foreign Minister emphasised, the Road Map with its objective of bringing about a two-state solution remains the basis of Austrian and European Middle East policy, so that "Israel and a Palestinian state can live as neighbours in peace and security".
"The European Union's current phase of intense preoccupation with its own internal affairs will not lead us to neglect our partners in our immediate neighbourhood and in the world at large. The Peace Process, the implementation of the New Neighbourhood Policy and the continuation of the Barcelona Process will be focal points of our cooperation with the Middle East region during the Austrian EU Presidency", said Plassnik.
With regard to the bilateral relations between Austria and Israel, the Foreign Minister pointed to the very frequent exchange of official visits and the growing economic cooperation, but added that there was still scope for a more dynamic impetus: "Now that all of Austria's immediate neighbours in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe have become our equal partners in the Union, Austria in her function as a hub for Central Europe is an especially interesting partner for Israel."
"Our cooperation with our cultural neighbour Israel in the fields of science and the arts has been particularly intensive for a long time now, and will continue at this high level in 2006 when we celebrate the 50-year anniversary of diplomatic relations between Austria and Israel", concluded Foreign Minister Plassnik, who will meet with Prime Minister Sharon later on Sunday before visiting the Palestinian Autonomous Territories on Monday.