As Blair arrived in the region, Israeli forces carried out a series of assassinations of Palestinians Israel accuses of being involved in violence. More than 50 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli operations since the 17 October assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavim Zeevi by gunmen from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

Blair’s visit to Damascus was the first by a British head of government since Syrian independence in 1946. Asad indicated that he disagreed with the UK view that the Syrian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah group and Palestinian opposition groups with offices in Damascus should be defined as ‘terrorist’. He also voiced concern at the deaths of civilians in the US bombing of Afghanistan. The main focus of Blair’s talks in Saudi Arabia was the diplomatic efforts to create a broad-based government in Afghanistan to replace the Taliban regime.

Israel at the end of October pulled its tanks out of a number of Palestinian towns it had re-occupied after the Zeevi assassination. However, the withdrawal did not mark an end to the Israeli violence. Six people were killed on 31 October alone, in a series of strikes against Palestinians alleged by Israel to be involved in attacks on Israelis. Palestinian security chief Jibril Rajoub, who worked out a deal to allow for the Israeli tanks to pull back, said the fresh killings would only provoke more violence. ‘When the retaliation comes, Israel can only blame the occupation,’ he said on 31 October.

Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Shimon Peres has been working on fresh peace proposals, said to include the dismantlement of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and the establishment of a Palestinian state incorporating parts of East Jerusalem. However, Sharon has insisted that, as prime minister, he alone is entitled to enter into negotiations with the Palestinians.

Israeli press reports have indicated that Sharon is likely to postpone a trip to the US he was scheduled to make on 11 November.