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Sharon Trip to Britain Called Success, but Some Disagreements Still Remain

Israeli officials are expressing delight with the results of a three-day visit to London by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Sharon’s meetings with top British officials have largely laid to rest tensions that have flared between the two countries in the past year, they say.

“This was a very positive and warm visit,” Israeli Embassy spokeswoman Shuli Davidovich said as Sharon’s trip came to an end Tuesday night.

She emphasized the importance of a two-and-a-half hour private dinner Sharon had at Prime Minister Tony Blair’s official residence, an honor accorded few visiting politicians.

The visit — Sharon’s first major trip to a foreign capital since last October — was designed to put an end to the frustration London and Jerusalem have felt with each other for months.

Israel was particularly upset when London rolled out the red carpet for Syrian President Bashar Assad, widely considered in the West to be a major sponsor of terrorism.

There also was anger at a perceived snub to Benjamin Netanyahu, who visited Britain last year as Israeli foreign minister; a British-backed conference on Palestinian reform that excluded Israel; and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw’s apparent comparison of Israel to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Straw incensed Israel in March by saying that there were “double standards” at work in the West’s treatment of Iraq and Israel.

But Straw welcomed Sharon warmly on Monday, praising “the huge amount of work you have been doing to help — in very great difficulties — the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.”

Israel and Britain resolved to “acknowledge that there were difficulties in the past, but to put aside those arguments and start better relations on a personal basis,” Davidovich told JTA. “There is a willingness from both sides to highlight the issues they agree upon.”

Despite the positive messages, there were still disagreements.

At the request of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, Britain urged Sharon to free more Palestinian prisoners as a confidence-building measure.

Israel has jailed about 6,500 Palestinians. It recently freed several hundred to boost Abbas’ standing among the Palestinian public, but Sharon has said he cannot release prisoners with “blood on their hands,” meaning those who have participated in terrorist attacks against Israel.

Blair also expressed unease about the security fence Israel is building to prevent terrorists from entering the country from the West Bank.

Sharon deflected Blair’s comment, calling the fence “neither a political nor a military border, but an obstacle to infiltration,” the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported.

For his part, Sharon had little success in convincing Britain to sever links with P.A. President Yasser Arafat.

“I think it’s a major mistake to keep contact with Arafat because Arafat is undermining Abu Mazen’s government,” Sharon said in an interview with two British papers before his departure for London, referring to Abbas by his nom de guerre. “All those visits and telephone calls only postpone the solution here.”

“Arafat is not interested in having a peace process or in reform,” Davidovich agreed.

While terrorist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad have agreed to a temporary cease-fire, the Al-Aksa Brigade — the terrorist militia of Arafat’s own Fatah movement — has been more ambiguous.

Statements Monday from Britain’s Foreign Office seemed to indicate that Sharon had failed to persuade London to turn its back on Arafat. However, one insider advised against reading too much into the remarks.

“Behind the scenes, it’s completely clear that Arafat is a discarded figure,” David Mencer, director of the Labor Friends of Israel lobbying group, told JTA.

The Financial Times newspaper agreed, noting in an editorial that Arafat had been excluded from the London conference on Palestinian reform.

The Foreign Office claim was primarily for consumption in the Arab world, which traditionally has had strong links to London’s foreign affairs establishment, Mencer said.

The British government hopes it can use its ties with both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to push the peace process forward.

London is trying to capitalize on momentum for change in the Middle East following the toppling of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, Mencer said.

“As after the first Gulf War, there is a changed reality,” he said.

Britain has been among the strongest advocates of the “road map” plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Diplomacy was handled very carefully during Sharon’s visit: He did not make public appearances with either Blair or Straw.

Lord Greville Janner, chairman of Britain’s Holocaust Educational Trust, said he thought that was wise.

“It was played very low-key,” he said of the trip. “I think that was the right way to do it. It was a very important visit, but it was private.”

Even so, about 500 people protested Sharon’s presence as he met Blair on Monday night.

Demonstrators included a small number of fervently Orthodox Jews with signs saying “Free Palestine,” as well as a range of pro-Palestinian and left-wing activists.

Four people were arrested for disturbing public order, police said. There were no serious injuries.

Sharon met about 200 Jewish community leaders while in Britain. The Orthodox chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, praised Sharon’s efforts to end the conflict with the Palestinians, calling him a “hero of war who has become a hero in pursuing peace.”

Sharon stressed the importance of Jewish education and aliyah at the meeting, and urged British Jews to visit Israel.

About 60 percent of British Jewish have been to Israel at least once, he noted, but it has never been as important for them to come as it is now to show their solidarity with the Jewish state.

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