Minister for Foreign Affairs to visit the Middle East

The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Brian Cowen T.D., will begin today a working visit to the Middle East. His programme includes Egypt, the Palestinian Territories, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

The Minister's visit comes just before Ireland enters the European Union Troika on 1 July and is part of a series of visits and contacts which the Minister will be making before Ireland assumes the EU Presidency on 1 January 2004. The Minister's last visit to the region was cut short by the events of 11 September2001.

The Minister will be urging the fullest possible support for the Quartet Road Map for a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He will encourage all parties to seize the opportunity for progress offered by the direct engagement and leadership of US President, George W. Bush.

Both bilaterally and through our active participation in international organisations, Ireland enjoys excellent relations with the countries to be visited. Ireland's tradition of involvement in UN peace-keeping operations in the region means that there is a positive profile of Ireland, particularly in Lebanon and Syria.

Ireland's economic relations with the countries of the region have developed considerably in recent years and the Government is conscious of opportunities to develop them further. While trade balances are generally in Ireland's favour, the increasing number of Irish tourists travelling to destinations such as Egypt and Jordan is important to those countries. Economic relations are no longer confined to traditional exports with services playing an increasingly important role. An example is the Irish architectural firm of Heneghan Peng, which has recently won the prestigious international competition to design the new Egyptian Museum of Pharaonic Antiquities.

Political talks in the various capitals are expected to focus on the Middle East Peace Process and the implementation of the Quartet Roadmap. The situation in Iraq will also be a major element of discussions.

In Egypt, the Minister will have discussions with Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher and the Secretary General of the Arab League, Amr Moussa.

In the Palestinian Territories, the Minister will be received by Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. He will have working meetings with Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath.

In Jordan, the Minister will hold meetings with Foreign Minister Marwan Mouasher. He will also hold discussions with the Ministers for Planning and Telecommunications to discuss cooperation between Ireland and Jordan in a number of economic areas.

In Syria, the Minister will meet Foreign Minister Farouk Shaara and hopes to pay a courtesy call on President Asaad.

In Lebanon, the Minister will meet President Lahoud and Foreign Minister Mahmoud.

It has not been possible on this occasion to arrange meetings with Israeli government representatives. This is due to the Israeli government's policy of refusing to meet foreign representatives who call on President Arafat. Minister Cowen met the Israeli Foreign Minister, Mr. Silvan Shalom, in Crete last month, and hopes to be in a position to travel to Israel for separate meetings with the Israeli representatives later in the year.


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