Blair calls for Middle East final status negotiations by end of year

British Prime Minister Tony Blair told members of his Labour Party on Tuesday that Britain would press for Middle East "final status" negotiations by the end of the year. United Nations resolutions should apply as much to Israel and the Palestinians as they do to Iraq, Blair said. Palestinian officials welcomed Blair's speech but Israeli diplomats said they were sticking to the "roadmap" outlined by U.S. President George W. Bush.

Speaking to the annual Labour Party conference in Blackpool, Blair said: "Some say the issue is Iraq. Some say it is the Middle East. It's both.

"What is happening in the Middle East now is ugly and wrong. The Palestinians living in increasingly abject conditions, humiliated and hopeless; Israeli civilians murdered. I agree - UN resolutions should apply here as much as to Iraq. But they don't just apply to Israel. They apply to all parties.

"By this year's end, we must have revived final status negotiations and they must have explicitly as their aims an Israeli state free from terror, recognized by the Arab world, and a viable Palestinian state based on the boundaries of 1967," Blair said.

Blair's comments apparently came in response to internal Labour opposition to the British government's hardline stance against Iraq while neglecting efforts to end Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Senior British government sources welcomed Blair's speech as a "bold" attempt to revive the Middle East peace process, The Guardian reported. One aide to the prime minister said Blair's appeal was an attempt to get the peace process moving again, but he added that Blair was not suggesting he lead the process, Ha'aretz reported.

The Guardian reported that the British government attached great significance to the pressure applied by the Americans resulting in the end of Israel's siege on Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's Mukata government compound in Ramallah. "The U.S. have shown themselves prepared to exert pressure and Ariel Sharon has shown that he will now obey," an unnamed British source told the paper.

Straw: British goal is to see two states side-by-side Earlier, British Foreign Minister Jack Straw said, "Israel has every right to its security. It can never enjoy this as long as the unimaginable daily threat of suicide bombings against innocent civilians continues." But, he added, "Just to see the daily indignities visited on the women and children at military checkpoints in the occupied territories is to know that the Palestinian people have suffered for too long.

"The right of the Palestinians to full, independent statehood is unarguable, indivisible, and overdue. All UN Security Council resolutions must be implemented and both sides must now take steps to stop the violence and get talking."

Straw said the British government's goal is to see "two states, Palestine and Israel, living side-by-side in peace and security, and we in the international community have a clear responsibility not to rest until both sides deliver it."

Palestinians welcome Blair's remarks while Israelis dismiss them

Arafat's bureau issued a statement saying that Blair's speech was "a very important statement... The Palestinian Authority calls on Blair to increase pressure on Israel to immediately implement UN Security Council Resolution 1435 by withdrawing its forces from all the occupied Palestinian territories," the statement said.

Israel Radio quoted unnamed Israeli diplomatic officials who dismissed the importance of Blair's remarks, and said that they would stick to the "roadmap" for Middle East peace outlined by President Bush in June, which called for a Palestinian state within three years and new Palestinian leadership but did not present a timetable for negotiations. The officials attributed Blair's speech to the pro-Arab stance of the British Foreign Ministry.

A senior diplomatic source in Jerusalem said Blair's comments were expected on the eve of a possible American-British strike against Iraq, the Jerusalem Post reported. The source said the speech was an attempt to curry favor from Arab countries. "It is to be expected. It is the rumblings before the war," the source said.

Officials in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's bureau emphasized that the British prime minister's words were "balanced," except for the comparison of Israel to Iraq. "Blair is a true friend of Israel, and it is pointless to be drawn into a useless confrontation over this," diplomatic sources said, quoted in Yediot Aharonot.

Ellis Shuman Israelinsider

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