Published on Friday, October 12, 2001 in the Guardian of London
US Puts Squeeze on Israel Amid Fears Over Propaganda Battle
by Ewen MacAskill and Suzanne Goldenberg in Jerusalem and Michael White in Cairo
The US is to make a determined effort to force Israel to enter into peace negotiations with the Palestinians, fearing that the west is in danger of losing the propaganda war with Osama bin Laden.
In an attempt to address one of the main Muslim grievances, President, George Bush will use all the financial and political muscle at his disposal to push the Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table.
Mr Bush, whose patience with the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, has finally snapped, is drawing up a detailed plan to be published in the next few weeks in the hope of finally resolving 53 years of conflict.
But Mr Sharon, whose camp has been unnerved by the development, will not be moved easily, and the scene is set for a gigantic battle of wills.
Tony Blair, who returned to London last night from a two-day visit to the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Egypt, highlighted a gnawing anxiety in the US and Britain.
Only five days after the bombing of Afghanistan began, Mr Blair made the extraordinary admission that the west was in danger of losing the propaganda war in Muslim states.
He said: "One thing becoming increasingly clear to me is the need to upgrade our media and public opinion operations in the Arab and Muslim world. There is a need for us to communicate effectively."
Bin Laden electrified parts of the Muslim world within hours of the first bombs landing on Afghanistan by releasing a video in which he tried to polarize the conflict between the west and Islam, focusing especially on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.
A senior aide to Mr Blair conceded that the broadcast had found a receptive audience in the Middle East.
The west's biggest worry is the dangerous schism between Arab leaders, who basically support the west and are appalled by Bin Laden, and sections of their people to whom he has become a potent symbol of defiance.
Acknowledging this, Mr Blair said: "All moderate, sensible parts of Arab opinion know that it is right that we are acting in Afghanistan and support that. But they do point out to us that they have a general problem with their own people, that we have lost interest in the peace process. It is a perception we need to counter."
In a series of interviews in the region and a signed article offered to Arab newspapers - all part of Downing Street's new battle for public opinion - Mr Blair stressed the urgent need to "convince people that we are sincere in our desire" to get the Middle East peace process back on track. Central to that is the new US thinking, which Saudi Arabia and Egypt are enthusiastically backing. It is based on proposals on the table when the Israelis and Palestinians met in January at Taba in Egypt, the closest they have ever come to agreement. It envisages Jerusalem as the shared capital of Jewish and Palestinian states.
The ideas, which were to be announced in a speech by the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, that was postponed because of the September 11 attack, are expected be revealed formally later this month.
Leaks in the American and Israeli press are causing tremors of nervousness around Mr Sharon, even though US diplomats say the proposals could change before they are publicly aired.
"This government is not going to divide Jerusalem. Period," Mr Sharon's spokesman Raanan Gissin said. "Jerusalem will remain the capital of the Jewish people."
Mr Sharon will visit Washington next month to press his case, Israel Radio reported yesterday. He is known to be angry that Mr Powell consulted Saudi Arabia and Egypt but not Israel when he drafted his speech.
Palestinian officials lauded the idea of a "viable homeland" - seen as an improvement on Mr Bush's call for a Palestinian state.
Revealing the nervousness of Arab governments, it emerged yesterday that a tentative plan to include Saudi Arabia on Mr Blair's Middle East itinerary was scrapped at the last minute.
The Saudi government is fearful of Islamic fundamentalist opinion in the kingdom.
The London paper Asharq al-Awsat quoted "informed sources" in London as saying the kingdom told Mr Blair that it could not receive him because the leadership was sensitive about its role and position in the Islamic world.
Downing Street played it down, insisting that the visit was not logistically possible.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001