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Wednesday, 7 November, 2001, 15:00 GMT
Analysis: Blair walks Mid-East tightrope
Tony Blair and George Bush
The two leaders want to revive the peace process
Roger Hardy

Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, will be in Washington on Wednesday for talks with President George W Bush which are expected to cover - among other things - Mr Blair's recent visit to the Middle East.

For a British leader without much hands-on experience of the Middle East, the visit was clearly a learning experience

The visit last week sent the clear message that Britain is seriously engaged in an effort to curb the violence in the region.

But it also showed Mr Blair, at first hand, how entrenched the hostility between Arabs and Israelis has become after more than a year of the intifada.

For a British leader without much hands-on experience of the Middle East, the visit was clearly a learning experience.

But having impressed on Arab and Israeli leaders that he is determined to see progress in the Middle East, Mr Blair now wants to discuss with President Bush what action outside powers can take to restore some kind of calm - and revive peace talks.

UN hopes

Optimists hope the new session of the United Nations General Assembly - due to open on Saturday in New York - will provide the focus for fresh diplomatic activity on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Ariel Sharon
Mr Sharon is staying away from the talks

President Bush will be there, and so will the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

But the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, is staying away, ostensibly because of the uncertain security situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

His officials say he will not visit America until later in the month.

The original plan was apparently that a major policy speech on the Middle East would be delivered to the UN by the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell.

The Americans are pessimistic about the chances of any new initiative and wary of getting involved in bruising... efforts to revive the peace process

At the same time there was expected to be a meeting at the UN between Mr Bush and Mr Arafat - something the Palestinian leader has been angling for ever since Mr Bush entered the White House.

Such a meeting now looks less likely.

And if Mr Powell does make a speech it may not, after all, break new ground.

As Mr Blair is likely to discover, the Americans are pessimistic about the chances of any new initiative and wary of getting involved in bruising, and quite possibly fruitless, efforts to revive the peace process.

'Calculated terror'

Much recent comment has focused on signs of friction in US-Israeli relations.

Anti-Israeli demonstration in Gaza
The Americans think Mr Arafat could do more to control militants

American officials have not disguised their opposition to Israel's recent incursions into Palestinian areas.

Despite their calls for an "immediate" withdrawal, Ariel Sharon has made it clear he will only pull back when he judges the time to be right.

But the Americans are frustrated with Mr Arafat too.

The Palestinians were stung when a senior US official, David Satterfield, last week described the intifada as "an ongoing process of calculated terror and escalation".

Behind such tough language is the conviction that Mr Arafat is still not doing enough to rein in militants bent on launching attacks against Israelis.

Unilateral statehood

In the meantime, there is no lack of diplomatic activity - most recently by the European Union - and plenty of talk about peace plans of one sort or another.

Anxious not to lose the political initiative, Mr Sharon and his foreign minister, Shimon Peres, have been discussing what the media are calling the "Peres plan".

For their part, some Palestinians are reviving an old idea - a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood.

But there may be an element of play-acting in these various initiatives.

Amid much talk of peace, the violence goes on, with very little sign that either Ariel Sharon or Yasser Arafat are likely to abandon the self-destructive actions of recent weeks.

See also:

07 Nov 01 | UK Politics
Blair prepares for Bush talks
03 Nov 01 | Middle East
Sharon cancels US visit
02 Nov 01 | UK Politics
Downing Street defends Blair trip
01 Nov 01 | Middle East
Analysis: Blair's delicate diplomacy
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