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London Conference Helps Blair While Creating Tensions with Israel

January 17, 2003
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A conference this week on Palestinian reform may have rubbed Israel the wrong way, but it may well have improved British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s standing at home.

Over Israel’s objections, Blair convened the conference to push for change in the Palestinian Authority.

As things worked out, it not only increased his standing in the Arab world, but also gave him greater leverage at home to push for tough measures against Iraq, observers said.

“In order to gain the support of the British public on Iraq, he needed to do something on the Israel-Palestinian conflict,” said David Mencer, director of Labor Friends of Israel, a British lobbying group.

The British public — and the left wing of Blair’s Labor Party — has been reluctant to support a war on Iraq. The public also is generally more sympathetic to the Palestinians than Americans are.

Taking a stand on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict boosted Blair’s credibility on the Middle East, Mencer said.

“In terms of Iraq, which is going the prime minister’s way,” the conference “was most definitely worth it,” he said.

Israel and Britain locked horns over the conference after Israel banned the Palestinian delegation from attending. The move came as part of Israel’s response to a twin suicide bombing earlier this month in Tel Aviv that killed 23 people and wounded more than 100.

The conference was attended by representatives of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and the diplomatic “Quartet” working on a road map for Middle East peace — the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia.

Israel was not invited, nor was the Israeli government informed about the conference before Blair made announced it publicly.

Because of the Israeli ban, Palestinian delegates took part via video hook-up.

“Can you hear me?” British Foreign Minister Jack Straw asked video screens in the basement conference room at the Foreign Ministry on Tuesday.

After a half-hour of technical difficulties, communication was established between London and Ramallah and Gaza.

Palestinian Authority Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo called for “peaceful negotiations” between Israel and the Palestinians, blaming both sides for the current situation.

“The suicide bombings will not bring us peace, and confiscating our liberty will not bring you security,” he said, addressing Israel. “Let us together reject extremism in all its forms.”

At the end of the conference, Straw stressed Israel’s need for security.

“Participants in London welcomed a clear and unequivocal Palestinian declaration against violence and terrorism,” he said in a communique. “There was a clear recognition that without Palestinian performance on security, the reform agenda will founder.”

Though Israel has demanded P.A. reform as a condition for diplomatic progress, the conference created intense friction between Britain and Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon rejected a personal plea from Blair to allow the Palestinian delegation to attend. Straw called Israel’s decision “counter-productive and regrettable.”

By the end of the week, however, both sides were saying they had patched up their differences.

Just the same, Blair won points in the Arab world for standing up to Israel.

In the end, only the Palestinian envoy to London, Afif Safieh, and a Palestinian legal adviser who holds a U.S. passport, Michael Tarazi, were physically present for the meeting.

Abed Rabbo participated from Ramallah, as did P.A. Interior Minister Hani El Hassan and Finance Minister Salam Fayyed.

The Palestinian Authority’s minister for planning and international co-operation, Nabil Sha’ath, took part from Gaza.

Israel says talk of reform is useless as long as Yasser Arafat remains in charge of the Palestinian Authority. Though Arafat himself wasn’t invited to the conference, Britain asked him to appoint the Palestinian delegates, ensuring that he chose loyalists.

Explaining the decision to bar the Palestinian delegation, Israeli Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Arafat could immediately order terrorists “to stop murdering innocent people. He doesn’t have to go to London for it.”

The leader of Israel’s Labor Party, Amram Mitzna, who was in London a few days before the conference, backed Sharon’s refusal to let the Palestinians attend.

“I understand why Prime Minister Sharon has taken such a decision after the terrorist attack in Tel Aviv,” Mitzna said. “It’s very difficult to explain how to back Palestinians who are not even trying to fight terrorism.”

The Quartet is expected to meet in London on Feb. 10 to discuss proposals for Palestinian reform put forward at the conference.

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