Blair meets Israeli opposition leader, Sharon TV defence banned

10 January 2003
Leader of Israel's Labour Party Amram Mitzna, in the UK for talks with Prime Minister Tony Blair, said in a BBC interview on 9 January that if elected he would immediately restart negotiations with the Palestinians and would be willing unilaterally to leave some Palestinian areas. 'I'm sure most Israelis do believe it is time to make concessions - sensitive and painful,' he said. Mitzna said that he would pull Israeli forces out of some settlements in Gaza and the West Bank: 'We have to separate ourselves from the Palestinians.' Talks with current Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Yasser Arafat were not ruled out: both the US and Israel have called for his removal before the peace process can proceed. Of his talks with the UK premier, he said: 'We both agreed that there is a necessity to resume negotiations side-by-side with fighting terrorism.' Blair wants to inject renewed energy into resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to illustrate to the Arab world that there is more to Western policy in the Middle East than the insistence on Iraqi disarmament. In a speech on 7 January, the Prime Minister warned of the perceived 'double standards' in dealing with Iraq and Israel.

The meeting between Blair and opposition leader Mitzna, close to the Israeli general election on 28 January, had been criticised by some Likud party supporters, particularly as Blair refused to meet Likud Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he visited London in December. Relations are already at a low point, since Blair's planned January conference in London on Palestinian reform has been scuppered by an Israeli ban on the PA officials travelling. Blair wrote to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon asking him to reconsider the decision, but Sharon telephoned Blair on 9 January to give what a Downing Street spokesman called a 'definitive no'. Government officials insist the talks will go ahead in some form.

Sharon continues to be damaged by corruption scandals, the latest one focussing on him personally. He is alleged to have received a personal loan of $1.5 million to repay illegal campaign contributions. The Prime Minister suffered a further indignity on 9 January: as he launched a furious refutation of the 'politically motivated' allegations, election officials ordered broadcasters to cut transmission of the speech, on the grounds that it constituted unlawful election propaganda.

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