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
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