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    Blair's peace initiative dismays Israel

    Chris McGreal in Jerusalem
    Wednesday December 8, 2004
    The Guardian

    Israel is increasingly wary that Tony Blair will use his impending visit to force the pace of the peace process as he promotes his own Middle East conference following Yasser Arafat's death.

    Although Ariel Sharon will embrace Mr Blair as a "great friend" of Israel when Mr Blair arrives for the two-day visit on December 21, concern is increasing in Jerusalem at Britain's attempts to force a greater role for Europe in ending the conflict.

    Mr Sharon has denounced Europe as pro-Palestinian and, earlier this year, said he did not feel the need to negotiate with anyone but the White House.

    Although Israel views Mr Blair as a solid ally, there is wariness at his attempt to insert himself into the peace process, particularly with the proposed conference in January which Israel is being discouraged from attending.

    Raanan Gissin, Mr Sharon's spokesman, said Israel did not initiate the invitation to Mr Blair, it was Mr Blair who "said he wanted to come". Another official said Israel believed Mr Blair was pushing forward the peace process as a means to revive his standing in the Labour party.

    The official said: "We recognise Tony Blair as a friend of Israel, but he is a friend who thinks he knows what is best for us. There is a widely held view here that Mr Blair wants to force the pace and that we are expected to pay the price because of his political difficulties at home."

    Israel's concern is that Mr Blair could nudge George Bush towards a firmer stand on issues such as the expansion of Jewish settlements and, if Palestinian violence largely stops, pressing Mr Sharon to re-engage with the US-led "road map".
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    More immediately, Israel is sceptical about Mr Blair's proposal for a Middle East conference in the new year. It is concerned the meeting will bypass the first phase of the road map, particularly the requirement for the Palestinian leadership to curb violence, and push on to the second phase which foresees the creation of a provisional Palestinian state.

    Officials in London said the aims of the conference were more limited. They said the conference was intended to help the Palestinians prepare for Israel's unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and address security issues which would help meet Palestinian obligations under the first phase.

    But Israel's real concern appears to be that if Mr Blair succeeds in pressing the Palestinians to meet their obligations under phase one, it could lead to US pressure to move on to the creation of a Palestinian state much quicker than Mr Sharon desires.

    While Mr Gissin said his government was still deciding whether to attend the conference, which is likely to be at foreign-minister level, British officials said Israel would not be invited.

    "What we're trying to do is implement phase one of the road map," said one British official. "We are not asking the Israelis to come. We don't re ally want them there because that increases the arguments and pointless political discussion. But they may invite themselves because they fear that if the Palestinians show up and agree to everything the EU might say: let's shoot for phase two."

    Mr Gissin was sceptical of wider European involvement in the peace process. "The Europeans can play a constructive role... by pressuring the Palestinians to stop the terror. They cannot influence the situation in any way by presenting initiatives that pressure Israel," he said.
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