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Wednesday, 26 June, 2002, 05:14 GMT 06:14 UK
Blair and Bush 'rift' over Arafat
UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and US President George W Bush
The issue could be the first rift since 11 September
The UK has refused to back US President George W Bush's demand for the removal of Yasser Arafat as the price for a future Palestinian state.

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw both said it was up to the Palestinian people to choose their own leader.


It is for the Palestinian people to choose their own leader

Downing Street

Mr Bush and Mr Blair are due to discuss the matter in private talks on Wednesday, during the G8 summit in Canada.

Several UK newspapers say the issue could mark the first serious rift between the two leaders since 11 September.

Mr Blair tried to play down the policy difference on Tuesday evening, telling the BBC on the flight to Canada: "I don't think there is any real difference at all. We all want someone we can deal with on the Palestinian side.

"They've got to choose their own leaders - but we do need interlocuters with whom we can work seriously, particularly on the security and counter-terrorism aspect."

He added: "I think there will be a very broad measure of agreement... whatever people may think of Yasser Arafat."

'Potentially damaging'

Mr Blair's official spokesman said that because the two governments were not using "precisely the same language", it did not mean that Britain did not broadly welcome Mr Bush's initiative.

Yasser Arafat
Arafat: Blair wants leaders with whom he can "work seriously"
Earlier in the Commons, Mr Straw broadly welcomed Mr Bush's peace plans, but said that if Mr Arafat was re-elected in fresh elections, Britain would continue to work with him.

Mr Straw's aides later pointed to a speech he gave last month in which he acknowledged differences of approach between the EU and US, but said both were "mature enough to cope with dissent and debate".

Donald Anderson, chairman of the House of Commons foreign affairs select committee, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme there was clearly a difference in emphasis between the US and UK.

Referring to Mr Bush's speech, he said: "It is a dangerous doctrine, indeed impertinent, to tell to one side in the conflict that we insist that you change your leadership."

The Tories warned that any sign of a rift between Britain and the US would only serve to undermine hopes of reviving the peace process in the Middle-East.

Shadow foreign secretary Michael Ancram said a split was "potentially highly damaging to the peace process in the Middle East and to the ability of President Bush's statement to move forward the peace process."

World unease

BBC correspondent Mark Mardell said that as Mr Blair has often been portrayed as Mr Bush's "poodle" on foreign policy matters, "Downing Street won't mind too much if there's now seen to be a little light between them".

Mr Arafat himself has brushed off the call for the Palestinians to find a new leader, saying he was democratically elected and that it is up to the Palestinian people alone to choose.

Other world leaders have expressed unease at the call for him to go.

"The Palestinian people will alone decide who is their legitimate leader," German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who will participate in the G8 summit, welcomed the idea of a state of Palestine but avoided comment on the call to replace Mr Arafat.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Bridget Kendall
"The was always a chance a crisis could intrude"
Prime Minister Tony Blair
"I don't think there is any real difference at all"
Labour MP Donald Anderson
"It is impertinent to say to one side in a confict that they have to change their leader"

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26 Jun 02 | In Depth
25 Jun 02 | UK Politics
25 Jun 02 | UK Politics
25 Jun 02 | Business
20 Jun 02 | Business
26 Jun 02 | Middle East
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