| An anti-Israeli protest in central London. (Reuters)
London, July 14 (Reuters): Britain rebuffed visiting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s appeal today to cut ties with Yasser Arafat, who Israel has accused of undermining reformist Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.
“(Foreign Secretary Jack Straw) made it clear that the British position, which is also that of the EU, is that we would continue to have dealings with Arafat,” a British official said after Straw held talks with Sharon.
Sharon was scheduled to hold talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on ways to shore up an internationally backed West Asia peace “road map”.
Britain has long argued it cannot ignore the democratically elected Palestinian President although Israel and the US shun him, accusing him of fomenting violence in a nearly three-year-old uprising for independence.
Arafat denies the allegations.
“Any contact with Arafat weakens Abbas,” said a senior Israeli official who accompanied Sharon to London.
Blair was expected to press Sharon on issues such as a freeze, mandated by the peace plan, on the expansion of Jewish settlements on occupied land Palestinians want for a state and a release of Palestinian prisoners.
Sharon is visiting Britain and Norway this week to highlight new peacemaking credentials after he and Abbas affirmed the road map at a June 4 summit in Jordan attended by US President George W. Bush. Israeli officials have hailed the trip as a sign European opposition to Sharon has softened in the wake of the peace plan sponsored by the US, the EU, the UN and Russia, and its vision of a Palestinian state by 2005.
Blair’s invitation to Sharon is viewed in Israel as particularly significant because it believes his close ties with Bush make him the most influential leader in the EU.
It is also conventional wisdom in Israel that it was Blair who twisted Bush’s arm to publish the peace plan in a bid to display even-handedness towards an Arab world angered by the US-led war in Iraq.
“We know the huge amount of work you have been doing to help, in very great difficulties, the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians and we would like to commend you for that,” Straw said to Sharon.