Israeli Decision to Ban Palestinians from Forum Latest Flap with Britain

Israel’s refusal to allow Palestinian delegates to attend a conference here on reforming the Palestinian Authority comes at a sensitive time in Israeli-British relations.

Israel decided Monday to bar the Palestinian delegation from next week’s conference after a double suicide bombing in Tel Aviv killed 22 Israelis and foreign workers on Sunday.

The Al-Aksa Brigade, the military wing of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction, claimed responsibility for the attack.

Israel was already skeptical about the conference, which was announced by British Prime Minister Tony Blair during an official visit to London by Syrian President Bashar Assad in December.

Israel was not invited to attend the conference.

Britain invited Arafat to send delegates to the conference, which is being supported by the diplomatic “Quartet” — the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia — seeking an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

Israel and many of its British supporters, both Jewish and non-Jewish, were furious over the Assad visit, which included an audience with Queen Elizabeth.

A week after Assad’s visit, Blair refused to meet Benjamin Netanyahu when the Israeli foreign minister visited London. Netanyahu instead met with Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, his British counterpart.

There were reports that the Straw-Netanyahu meeting did not go well. The two did not hold a joint news conference after their meeting, perhaps for fear of highlighting their differences.

Meanwhile, Blair is planning to meet the leader of Israel’s opposition Labor Party, Amram Mitzna, in London this week. Observers say Blair is trying to help Mitzna ahead of Israel’s Jan. 28 election.

The government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reportedly is furious that Blair refused to see Netanyahu but is meeting Mitzna.

It also emerged last week that Britain’s refusal to sell certain spare parts to Israel may force Israel to ground part of its air force.

A British company is among very few in the world still making a critical part used in the ejector seats of F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers.

The Israeli Air Force has 140 Phantoms. A Defense Ministry spokeswoman said last Friday that the planes might have to be grounded if Britain blocks delivery of the part.

An unnamed British official told The Associated Press that “there is no official or unofficial embargo on arms exports to Israel,” but that “exports should not be used for internal repression or external aggression.”

The official said the Foreign Office had approved the export of 128 military-related items to Israel in 2002, and refused 77.

In any case, the grounding of the Phantoms would not affect Israel’s air superiority in the Middle East, experts said.

On Monday, Straw asked Netanyahu to rethink the decision to bar the Palestinian officials from the conference, a decision Straw said had been made “in anger.”

“I believe that this cannot advance the cause of peace and security for Israelis any more than it can for Palestinians,” Straw told a gathering of British ambassadors in London.

“While I understand the anger in which the decision was made, and the profound concern and responsibilities of the Israeli government to fight terrorism, I hope very much that they will think again about this decision,” Straw said.

Earlier on Monday, Straw said the conference eventually would take place, even if it had to be delayed because of the Israeli decision.

Netanyahu, who also discussed Israel’s decision with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, said the entire premise of the conference was flawed.

“The Palestinian leadership does not need to meet abroad to close down suicide kindergarten camps, to stop incitement to murder and to fight terrorism,” Netanyahu said in a statement Monday. “This they can do in Ramallah and Gaza — right here, right now. Until the Palestinian leadership does so, it must be given no quarter and no legitimacy in the free world.”

David Mencer, director of Labor Friends of Israel, a lobbying group, said Israel’s response was appropriate.

“I think that Britain would have done the same thing if they were in the same situation,” he told JTA.

Israel has been exceedingly skeptical about Palestinian reforms under Arafat.

“As long as Arafat is heading the Palestinian Authority, no reform is possible,” a spokeswoman for the Israeli Embassy in London said. “As George W. Bush said in June, the main reform” would be “a change in the Palestinian leadership.”

Netanyahu has expressed similar concerns, comparing Arafat to Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. “Arafat is a bin Laden with good public relations, especially in Europe,” he said last month.

Mencer said Britain was trying to walk a fine line between Israel and the Arabs.

“Every Arab leader who visits Britain brings up the Israeli-Palestinian issue first,” he said.

But, he added, “Blair is Israel’s best friend in Europe by a long stretch. Every Israeli prime minister who comes to visit — Sharon or Barak — comes out with the same line ringing in his ears: ‘If Britain was faced with a similar barrage of terrorism, Britain’s response would be very similar.’ “

A longtime observer of British-Israeli relations said some of the current tension is due to differences between Blair’s office and the Foreign Ministry in London.

“As ever, there are two foreign policies, one that comes out of the prime minister’s mouth and one from the foreign office,” said the observer, who asked not to be named. “If you’re a friend of Israel you’re going to be happier with what Blair says, and if you’re a friend of the Arabs you’re going to feel more at home in the foreign office.

“But what Blair says goes,” the observer said, “and no doubt when he speaks, all these problems will be ironed out.”

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