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Visit by British Minister to Arafat Deepens Rift with US
Published on Wednesday, July 3, 2002 in the lndependent/UK
Visit by British Minister to Arafat Deepens Rift with US
by Andrew Grice

The rift between Britain and the United States over the Middle East deepened last night when a British Foreign Office minister held talks with Yasser Arafat at his West Bank headquarters.

The surprise visit by Mike O'Brien came only days after President George Bush demanded that Mr Arafat step down as President of the Palestinian Authority, and Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, shelved plans to visit the region and suggested Washington was no longer talking to Mr Arafat.

Mr O'Brien, who took over as junior minister with responsibility for the Middle East last month, also met Shimon Peres, the Israeli Foreign Minister, on what Downing Street said was a "familiarization visit". He did not meet Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister.

The meeting with Mr Arafat threatened to reopen the row between London and Washington over Mr Bush's call for his removal as part of a Middle East peace settlement. Relations have also been strained by America's opposition to the International Criminal Court established on Monday.

Downing Street tried to play down the significance of Mr O'Brien's visit and said Tony Blair supported the US President's speech on the Middle East last week calling for a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.

But the clear differences of approach were highlighted by the decision to meet Mr Arafat. The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "We have said we will continue to talk to those people who are elected representatives of the Palestinian people. But that does not mean we do not want to see reform of the Palestinian Authority."

The spokesman said Mr Blair, while happy to continue dealing with Mr Arafat as an elected leader, believed the Palestinian president had let his people down. "We don't believe the Palestinian Authority and Yasser Arafat have done all they could to bear down on terrorism and to condemn terrorism," he said, adding that this was likely to be relayed by Mr O'Brien during the talks.

The spokesman added: "We have to be able to negotiate with somebody who represents the views of the Palestinian people and who can deliver. It's no secret that, as the Prime Minister has said on several occasions, we believe Yasser Arafat is somebody who has let down the Palestinian people." There were no plans for Mr Blair to speak to Mr Arafat directly, Number 10 said.

Asked why the Foreign Office minister was not meeting Mr Sharon, the Number 10 spokesman replied: "Because he is seeing who he is seeing. Shimon Peres is the Foreign Minister, a senior figure in the administration."

Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrats' foreign affairs spokesman, said it was an "entirely sensible decision" for Mr O'Brien to go to the Middle East. He added: "For all his many faults and failures, Yasser Arafat is still the leader of the Palestinian people. No reasonable prospect for peace in the Middle East exists without his engagement."

© 2002 lndependent Digital (UK) Ltd


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