After Sderot stop, Miliband heads for Syria

British Foreign Secretary says he has no plans to carry any message from Jerusalem to Damascus.

miliband syria 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
miliband syria 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband left Israel Monday for Syria and Lebanon, where he intends to seek support for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. His visit to Damascus is the first by a senior British official since 2001. He plans to meet with Syrian President Bashar Assad on Tuesday. On Sunday, after he met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, he told The Jerusalem Post that he had no plans to carry a message from Israel to Syria. Both he and the Prime Minister's Office have affirmed Turkey's role as a mediator in the indirect talks between Israel and Syria. The PMO is currently pressing for a fifth round of indirect talks. During his time in Syria and Lebanon, Miliband said Monday during a Ramallah press conference, "I will certainly be explaining to my hosts in Damascus and in Beirut the important responsibilities that exist on all states in the region to support the process both directly and indirectly that is so important for your people." "2009 is going to be a very important year, with a new administration taking shape in the United States and a new government in Israel," he added. He said that the United Kingdom wanted to do everything it could to support the peace process in the region during that time. The solution to the conflict, he said, was the existence of two states, based on the 1967 borders. "It's a point that we have reiterated and we'll continue to set out very clearly," said Miliband. He also called on Israel to adhere to its commitments under the Road Map to freeze settlement activity. He spoke in Ramallah after making a solidarity visit to Sderot with Defense Minister Ehud Barak. He came on a morning when residents were rocked by warning sirens heralding the continued rocket barrage. He visited an elementary school in Sderot and met students who had never known what it was like to live without the threat of rocket attacks. He was shown a special room where the children go when they need to recover from the stress of those attacks. "It's very important that countries like mine and others show their solidarity with the people of Sderot, and that's why I am here today. "I think that anyone who comes here or talks to Mayor Eli Moyal as I did earlier this year when he was in London will see that the long history of trauma that has become a symbol of the tragedy that the people here face," said Miliband. Miliband flew from there to a school in Jerusalem where Jewish and Arab students learn together. The school, he said, was an "important emblem of the sort of change that can be built from the bottom up." He also met with Likud Party leader Binyamin Netanyahu. The two politicians discussed the growing Iranian nuclear threat. Netanyahu told Miliband that if he were elected prime minister he would take the talks with the Palestinians in a new direction with an economic plan that would build peace from the bottom up. Miliband's visit came at a time of tensions between Israel and Great Britain over its drive to ensure that Israeli products from the settlements are properly labeled as such when they are sold in Europe. On Sunday, Miliband told the Post that he was not reopening the issue. In an interview with the Associated Press, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad said that his government had asked European Union countries to clamp down on imports of goods made in the settlements. Fayyad said he has told the EU that Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts are "collapsing under the settlement expansion." Fayyad said the said the approach to the Europeans had so far been made on an informal basis, not by a formal written request. When the issue was raised at the Ramallah press conference, he said he sought the proper implementation of a trade agreement between Israel and the EU which was supposed to mark such products. "The British position is for the fair and proper implementation of the agreements on produce from this region," Miliband told a joint news conference with PA President Mahmoud Abbas. "That means preferential trade for Israeli products, preferential trade for Palestinian products, but not preferential trade from the settlements." He added that he wasn't pushing for a new policy but seeking to improve implementation of existing rules. PA Foreign Minister Riad Malki told a news conference in Ramallah Monday that Britain was in the forefront of economic efforts to put pressure on the settlements. "We are beginning to translate into practice the international concerns regarding settlement activities," he said. "Britain is the first to take such procedures, especially regarding settlement products." The Palestinians have proposed several options to the Europeans, from a total ban on imports from settlements to raising customs duties or clearly labeling the origin of products Fayyad said. He added that Britain had expressed interest in the latter two. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said the Palestinian campaign was unhelpful. "Riding the boycott trail will lead the Palestinians nowhere," he said. Fayyad is also targeting Israel's effort to upgrade its economic ties with the EU. "Israel is breaking the law by expanding settlements, and the EU should ask Israel not to do that, as a condition for upgrading," Fayyad said. He said he had discussed the issue with EU officials and had received "positive feedback." AP contributed to this report.