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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Sri Lankan president makes first-ever visit to Israel


Mahinda Rajapaska visits President Peres in Jerusalem to offer his help in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In the past, Nelson Mandela, the former and recently deceased president of South Africa, wanted to help Israel and the Palestinians to resolve their conflict. Now, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaska wants to help in that direction as well.

Rajapaska, who is on an official visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, is his country’s first head of state to come to Israel even though diplomatic and other ties between the two countries have existed almost as long as their independence, which in each case was gained in 1948.

In welcoming his Sri Lankan counterpart to his residence on Thursday, President Shimon Peres hailed him as a great leader who was successful in bringing peace, reconciliation and restoration to his people “which is not a small achievement.”

Acknowledging that his guest was well aware of the difficulties of bringing peace to people who have long experienced hostility and violence, Peres told Rajapaska that Israel follows his achievements with great admiration.

“You have come here as a leader with an impressive record. You have invested your heart and mind and days and nights in peace, and you are seeing the fruits. You have come to a region still in search of peace and reconciliation. Israel is determined to make peace.”

Reviewing the seven wars in which Israel had triumphed and noting the peace agreements that Israel had reached with Egypt and Jordan, Peres conceded that while the peace is not perfect, “we prefer an imperfect peace to a perfect war.”

Israel has to conclude the first chapter of peace by concluding an agreement with the Palestinians, before it can hope for peace all over the Middle East, he said, adding that Israel wants to use the potential of peace and of a modern economy and science to help not only its own people, but also the Palestinians.

Peres noted that despite having limited territory, Israel had built up a flourishing economy which answers the needs of the Israeli population, and also enables Israel to help others. “We did not gain land, but we gained knowledge,” he said.

Peres also related to Israel’s sometimes rocky relationship with Sri Lanka, which he said, had its ups and downs, and commented that it was better to forget the downs and remember the ups.

Responding to president’s remarks, Rajapaska said that his country supports peace for all people. Sri Lanka had suffered thirty years of war with terrorists and had enjoyed peace only in the last four years, he said.

In that brief period, it has succeeded in eradicating terrorism and developing economically. It released 14,000 former combatants from prison, some who had been child soldiers, and sent them back to society, he said.

Moreover, 300,000 displaced people had been resettled, minefields had been neutralized, railway lines, roads, hospitals and schools had been built, electricity had been installed and the people in the new areas had been given water. The cost factor had been US$400 billion. In addition people from the army had been recruited for the police force.

Mahinda Rajapaska’s visit to Israel is characterized as official rather than state. For this reason there were no Sri Lankan flags in the streets on the route leading from his hotel to the President’s Residence; there was no honor guard and no army or police band to play the national anthems of both countries. There was however, the usual police motor cycle escort. There was also the red carpet, with Peres waiting at the edge to greet the smiling Rajapaska as he literally leapt from the car to meet him.

Rajapaska did not always entertain a warm attitude towards Israel according to an article by Upul Joseph Fernando which was published on Wednesday in The Sri Lanka Guardian.

Referring to a period in 1970 in which Sri Lanka had severed its ties with Israel, Fernando quoted Rajapaska as saying in a speech at that time: “The establishment of diplomatic relations with German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the Provincial Revolutionary Government of Vietnam, and also abrogation of diplomatic ties with Israel are encouraging signs that the government is committed to a non-aligned foreign policy, which is the aspiration of the people.”

More importantly, Fernando continued, “When the Palestine Friendship Association was established in 1975 Mahinda became its first President. In this capacity, Mahinda worked assiduously to raise awareness about the Palestinian problem among the people of this country and mobilize support and sympathy for their cause”
Even though the government closed the Israeli embassy he wrote, the government was buying weapons from Israel through an Israeli agent, who curiously was selling the same kind of equipment to the LTTE.

Future efforts to reopen the Israel Embassy, he added, were opposed by Rajapaska.

The article also mentions help that Sri Lanka received from Mossad, even during those periods in which diplomatic relations had been cut.

For the time being, Sri Lanka has mended its fences with Israel and the two countries have a very good relationship, particularly on matters of defense.

Rajapaska met on Wednesday with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the two agreed to expand bilateral relations, especially in agriculture and water technology.

Unlike most official visitors to Israel, Rajapaska met with Palestinian Authority leaders before calling on Netanyahu and Peres.

There are some 7,000 Sri Lankans working in Israel, primarily as caregivers.