JERUSALEM (Apr. 20)
Israel has downplayed a British offer to host peace talks — a day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accepted the offer.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair issued the invitation during a visit to Israel, where he met with Netanyahu as part of his first trip to the Middle East as prime minister.
Speaking at a joint news conference Sunday night with Blair in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said that he was ready to go “anywhere, including London” for talks to try to advance the deadlocked peace process.
On Monday, however, Netanyahu assured his Cabinet ministers that he was referring to a meeting in Europe, and not necessarily a summit meeting with European mediation.
Indeed, the U.S. State Department confirmed Monday that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright would hold separate meetings May 4 in London with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.
The Palestinian Authority has repeatedly called for a greater European role in the peace process, with several officials repeatedly charging that the United States is not an honest broker.
With Israeli officials adopting the opposite position — that the European Union would be biased in favor of Palestinian demands — Netanyahu’s remarks to his Cabinet appeared aimed at calming fears that Blair’s invitation could translate into increased pressure on Israel to make territorial concessions to the Palestinians.
“We haven’t decided the full extent” of what meetings would take place in London, Netanyahu told reporters Monday. “There are a number of possibilities involved in the bilateral working out of problems. But I prefer to wait until Mr. Blair has a chance to complete his round of discussions.”
Meanwhile, Arafat told Blair during a meeting Monday in the Gaza Strip that he was willing to go to London for talks on a U.S. proposal aimed at breaking the deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, British and Palestinian officials said.
Abdel Ahmed Rahman, the secretary of the Palestinian Authority, said Blair had invited Arafat to take part in discussions with Israel, the United States and Britain, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union.
U.S. officials have drawn up a proposal that reportedly calls for Israel to redeploy from an additional 13 percent of the West Bank in tandem with Palestinian moves to live up to their security commitments.
Israeli officials have stated that they consider the plan unacceptable, with some ministers quoted as saying they would not approve a redeployment of more than 9 percent.