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Blair supports Palestinian state

LONDON, Oct. 15 (JTA) — British Jews are taking Prime Minister Tony Blair’s support for a Palestinian state in stride.

But they say Blair must make clear to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat that terror against Israel is no different — and no less reprehensible — than the Sept. 11 attacks against the United States.

Blair met Arafat in London on Monday as part of Blair’s effort to maintain the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism.

As President Bush did recently, Blair expressed his support for a Palestinian state “as part of a negotiated and agreed settlement which guarantees peace and security for Israel.”

Blair also praised Arafat for “his efforts to control violent rejectionist groups within the ranks of the Palestinian people.

“I recognize that Palestinian violence has significantly reduced in the last week,” he added.

Arafat’s forces apparently killed three Palestinians last week in suppressing a pro-Osama bin Laden demonstration in the Gaza Strip, and recently detained a handful of Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants wanted by Israel.

Israel claims the arrests are essentially a cosmetic measure designed to shield the militants from Israeli reprisal.

Arafat, for his part, said that he condemned all forms of terrorism, “including state-sponsored terrorism.” He also called for the immediate resumption of peace talks.

An Israeli spokesman responded with praise for Blair, but was skeptical about Arafat.

“We welcome Tony Blair’s reaffirmation of commitment to the Middle East peace process,” said D.J. Schneeweis, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in London.

“Not only has he expressed his support for a Palestinian state, but Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak have expressed willingness to discuss the idea on the assumption that such a state would be a force for peace and stability in the region,” he said.

But, he added, “this is a key test that Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority has failed abysmally so far.”

A leading British Jewish analyst said the meeting served an important purpose for Arafat.

“Blair is serving as a stalking horse for George Bush, softening up American politicians and media so that Arafat can go to America,” said Barry Kosmin, director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, a London-based think tank.

The terror attack on America put Arafat in an uncomfortable position. Having used terror by Hamas and Islamic Jihad — and even by members of his private guard — during the yearlong Palestinian uprising against Israel, Arafat is worried that the Palestinian Authority might be targeted in a concerted international anti-terror effort.

At the same time, as suspected terrorist mastermind bin Laden tried to use the Palestinian issue to whip up Arab and Muslim anger at America, Arafat had tremendous leverage over Bush in his efforts to mollify the Arab world.

Bush, and now Blair, have made several statements in recent weeks backing the idea of a Palestinian state. The Bush administration reportedly has prepared a new Mideast peace initiative, and Blair on Monday called on Sharon to return to peace talks despite continuing Palestinian violence.

Arafat, for his part, is showing his support for the Western coalition against bin Laden.

“The last thing he wants to do is repeat the mistake of the Gulf War,” when he backed Saddam Hussein, Kosmin said. “He’s been trying to work out who’s going to win the war, and now he’s come down. He assumes the Americans are serious this time.”

To demonstrate his support for the West, Arafat uses forums like the meeting with Blair to “send messages to the Palestinians of what he wants them to do,” Kosmin said.

Arafat, who speaks English, spoke only Arabic during his appearance with Blair. Critics of the Palestinian leader often have accused him of saying one thing to international audiences — in English — while sending a different message to his own people in Arabic.

If Arafat’s condemnation of terrorism “discourages even three or four guys from blowing themselves up on the streets on Netanya, that’s positive,” Kosmin said.

A British vice president of the World Jewish Congress welcomed any pressure Blair may have put on Arafat to stop Palestinian terrorism.

“I hope the prime minister made clear to Arafat that all terrorism, whether in the United States or in the Middle East, must be condemned,” said Lord Janner. “Suicide bombers and extremists are a universal menace, and their fanaticism should never be rewarded.”

An Israeli source backed that sentiment, voicing an “assumption” that in their meeting, Blair made it clear to Arafat that violence against Israelis had to stop.

The source cautiously welcomed the Blair-Arafat talks.

“We have no problem with renewed British involvement in the peace process, as long as Israel is not excluded,” said an Israeli source who asked not be named.

Israel has been furious at some recent British diplomatic moves in the Middle East, such as comments made in an Iranian newspaper by Foreign Secretary Jack Straw that appeared to sympathize with terrorist attacks against Israel.

But Britain has learned from that mistake, the Israeli source said.

“Trying to score points with the Arabs at Israel’s expense is going to backfire,” the source said.

London is making “a clear effort to keep Israel in the loop” during the Arafat visit, the source added. Straw spoke to Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres the night before the visit, and Blair phoned Sharon after speaking to Arafat.

A spokesman for Blair said Blair and Sharon would meet in London next month.

The Israeli source said Israel was prepared to be reasonable regarding a Palestinian state.

“Obviously, there will be angry noises coming out of Israel from right-wingers who believe that everything Arafat does is inherently bad,” the source said. “But fundamentally, Sharon and the Labor party are willing to pay a political price to do what is responsible and appropriate.”

However, the source added that Britain had to press Arafat for action, not just words.

“What Arafat has done is frozen the situation, not rolled it back,” the source said. “I don’t know if it’s in the freezer or in the fridge, but what Arafat has to do is cook up a whole new broth.”

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