LONDON (Mar. 9)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared unusually grim when he emerged from almost two hours of talks here with his British counterpart, Tony Blair.
Perhaps it was the result of an exhausting schedule that had taken him on a diplomatic swing over the weekend through four European states — Spain, Germany, Norway and Britain.
More likely, it was a reflection of tough talking between prime ministers and their aides in several European capitals, including Sunday’s talks here.
Netanyahu’s mission came at a time of growing American and — some say coordinated — European impatience over lack of progress in the Middle East peace process.
There has been growing anticipation that the United States will soon go public with a plan for Israel to withdraw now from another 13.1 percent of the West Bank — an amount of territory that would be considered too much by Israel and too little by the Palestinians.
European nations, meanwhile, have been increasingly outspoken on the Middle East as they press for a role in the peace process.
Netanyahu’s trip was aimed at winning European support for an Israeli initiative to withdraw from Lebanon and for its long-standing demand that the Palestinian Authority reciprocate in implementing already-signed agreements – - a move Netanyahu has repeatedly stated would remove obstacles to Israel’s own compliance and open the way to final-status talks.
Britain, which currently holds the presidency of the 15-nation European Union, has repeatedly expressed its determination during the past three months to secure a more influential role in Middle East diplomacy to protect the $2 billion investment in economic aid that the E.U. donor countries have given the Palestinian Authority over the course of more than four years.
While not wishing to offend an important trading partner, Israeli officials have been strongly resisting the Europeans, whom they perceive as tilting toward the Arab side.
Speaking outside the official Downing Street residence of the British prime minister, Netanyahu sought to put the best possible spin on the encounter.
He described the meeting as “positive and businesslike” and said the two sides had discussed “a number of ideas on how to advance the process.”
“We want to move with the Palestinians, and we want to withdraw from Lebanon,” he said, but he declined to elaborate on the substance of the talks or the ideas that were raised, insisting they would be “best left on a confidential basis to see if we can proceed with them.”
What went on behind the closed doors? It is understood that Netanyahu sought European support for tough security arrangements with the Palestinians as well as for Israel’s plan to withdraw from Lebanon.
Under that plan — which Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai presented in Paris over the weekend while Netanyahu was holding his own round of meetings — Israel would withdraw its troops from southern Lebanon in exchange for a security guarantee from Lebanon to maintain quiet in the area.
Many observers believed the plan had little chance of success because it ignored Syria, the main power broker in the region. But there were reports in the Israeli press that some Lebanese officials were indeed interested in the plan.
European Union peace envoy Miguel Moratinos, who attended the Netanyahu-Blair meeting, was expected to travel to Syria this week to explore Israel’s withdrawal proposal.
And while British officials gave a sympathetic hearing to Israel’s security concerns, they were unwilling to be sidetracked from their determination to focus on their own demand for an enhanced E.U. role in Middle East peace diplomacy — particularly on the Palestinian track — and on the implementation of Israel’s existing commitments.
Central to these commitments, from Britain’s perspective, are the redeployments of Israeli troops from more of the West Bank and a halt to all expansion of settlements.
No less important, in view of the leading economic role the Europeans are playing, are a slew of demands for Israel to remove what British officials perceive as “impediments” to Palestinian economic development.
These so-called impediments, which E.U. officials insist are blunting the impact of their aid effort, were identified by British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook in a speech to the Arab-British Association in London last week.
Israel, he said, must lift restrictions on Palestinians seeking to work in Israel, agree to the creation of industrial zones in the Gaza Strip, facilitate the establishment of a seaport and airport in Gaza, and help create a safe passage route for Palestinians traveling between the West Bank and Gaza.
At Sunday’s meeting, Netanyahu pointed out that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are close to agreement on opening the Gaza airport and creating an industrial zone at the Karni Crossing, which straddles the Israeli-Gaza border.
And he asked Blair to help convince Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to attend a summit with Netanyahu to resolve these and other outstanding issues from the 1995 Interim Agreement.
Blair agreed to pursue the idea of a summit when he sees Arafat in a meeting scheduled later this week.
Palestinian officials in Gaza, however, swiftly ruled out the possibility of a Netanyahu-Arafat meeting until Netanyahu commits himself to implementing wide- scale redeployments in the West Bank.
Unlike recent meetings between Israeli and British prime ministers, which have ended with ringing declarations from both sides that relations had never been better, Sunday’s encounter concluded with a whimper rather than a bang.
Attempting to decipher substance from ceremony, observers attached significance to the contrast between Blair’s warm greeting when he met Netanyahu and his relatively curt farewell.
Accompanying Netanyahu to the front door of 10 Downing Street at the end of the meeting, Blair paused just long enough for the obligatory photographs before turning sharply on his heels and leaving Netanyahu in the bitingly cold gray afternoon to field questions alone from the waiting media pack.
The next steps in this evolving drama will unfold during the coming six weeks, when Blair and Cook are both scheduled to visit Jerusalem.