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Tuesday, 25 June, 2002, 15:06 GMT 16:06 UK
Blair risks poodle jibes
Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George W Bush
Blair ducks the question over Bush demand

"The President uses his words and the Prime Minister uses his words".

This is the way Downing Street ducks the issue of whether Tony Blair backs George Bush's demand for the ousting of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as a precondition for recognition of a Palestinian state.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat
Demand for Arafat's removal

And the two leaders are likley to continue using different words when they meet privately at the G8 summit in Canada, where all eyes are now on their apparent rift over the issue

The Downing Street phrase is not a new formula, it is the one the prime minister always uses when he doesn't want to be seen either agreeing or disagreeing with someone.

And most recently it has been regularly deployed in relation to announcements made by the President over the Middle East.

But it is a piece of evasiveness, no matter how understandable, that does him no service.

Special relationship

Clearly, he does not want to suggest a serious rift between Downing Street and the White House.

Ever since 11 September, these two men have forged an unexpectedly close "special relationship".

But, equally, the prime minister is well aware of the problems he may stir up, not least on his own benches, if he enthusiastically backs such a hardline and apparently anti-democratic approach.

And barbs about the President's poodle hit their mark.

So, the words the prime minister chooses to use are: "It is for the Palestinian people to choose their own leader. But Chairman Arafat has let down the Palestinian people."

New elections

That sounds to some like: "You can chose any leader you like, so long as it's not Yasser Arafat."

In the past, he has insisted that he had no choice in the matter of who he had to hold peace talks with.

Israeli soldiers on the West Bank
New hopes for peace in Middle East
That was a statement of fact and recognised the reality that any attempt to dictate to groups, be it the Palestinians or the Irish republicans, about who their leaders should be could only make matters worse.

But, in the wake of the president's remarks, a question mark now hangs over the government's position.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, in a statement to MPs during question time, failed to clear up the confusion.

Welcoming the president's statement, he simply agreed that elections should be held to allow the Palestinians to chose a leader to take them into negotiations.

The danger seen by many now is that the issue of Chairman Arafat's future could overshadow what otherwise is widely viewed as a major step forward.


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25 Jun 02 | Middle East
25 Jun 02 | Middle East
24 Jun 02 | Middle East
25 Jun 02 | UK Politics
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