George Bush was facing his first serious rift with Tony Blair last night after
Britain joined the European Union and the United Nations in rejecting American
calls for Yasser Arafat to be ousted as leader of the Palestinian authority. In
a sharp rebuff to President Bush, Downing Street and Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary,
said it was up to the Palestinian people to decide their leader.
President Bush's speech delighted the Israeli government, but was greeted with
anger and despair in the Arab world, bringing protests that the US is trying to
dictate to the Palestinians who should be their leader.
Buoyed by the presidential message, Israeli troops raided the Palestinian Authority's
security headquarters in Hebron and killed four policemen, including a senior
intelligence officer, in an exchange of gunfire.
Mr Bush's call for a new Palestinian leadership was rejected not only by the
Palestinian Authority but by a wide range of world leaders. Kofi Annan, secretary
general of the UN, warned last night that President Bush's call for the removal
of Mr Arafat could backfire if a more hardline leader was elected. The former
US senator George Mitchell, who tried last year to broker a Middle East peace
deal, expressed similar worries that Islamic Jihad or Hamas could take over from
the PLO leader.
The British Government's stance echoed that of the EU and foreshadowed similar
conflict with the US over Third World debt and trade tariffs that could dominate
the G8 summit that begins today in Canada. Mr Blair tried to play down differences
with the Americans, welcoming the broad thrust of President Bush's strategy, setting
out a timetable for Palestinian statehood within three years. But the refusal
of both Downing Street and the Foreign Office to endorse the removal of Mr Arafat
made it clear that this was the biggest foreign policy clash between America and
Britain since 11 September. Mr Blair's official spokesman said that although the
Prime Minister believed Mr Arafat should do much more to bear down on suicide
bombers, Palestinians had the final say. "In terms of Chairman Arafat, we have
always said that it is for the Palestinian people to choose their own leader,"
the spokesman said. "The British Government uses its words. The American administration
uses its words," he added.
In the Commons, Mr Straw went further. "Our view has never been in doubt. We
deal with the leaders who are elected as we find them. If President Arafat were
re-elected by the Palestinian authority, we will deal with him." Mr Straw's aides
pointed out that the Foreign Secretary made plain last month he was "relaxed about
differences" between the UK and US on the Middle East, the Kyoto protocol on climate
change and steel tariffs precisely because the two countries agreed on many other
Mr Bush has always refused to meet the Palestinian leader but Mr Blair has
received him in Downing Street as well as meeting him in Gaza. On the flight to
Canada, Mr Blair tried to smooth over the differences, but he also acknowledged
that the Palestinians would "elect who they want to elect", while emphasizing
the importance of finding a leadership "prepared to make a deal".
© 2002 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd