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 Tuesday, 14 January, 2003, 19:57 GMT
Analysis: A diplomatic dance
British Prime Minister Tony Blair (2nd left), British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw (l) and head of the Egyptian Intelligence service Omar Sulaiman (far right)
Israeli blockade may have won Blair Arabs' sympathy

The London conference on Palestinian reform was a diplomatic dance at which the "partners" were dancing to their own tune.

In a curious sort of way, everybody got their message over

For the British Government, it was an effort to show that it is interested in the Palestinians and not just in disarming or removing the Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein.

The fact that Israel blocked the Palestinian delegates from attending probably won Britain more points in the Arab world than if the conference had gone ahead as planned.

For the Palestinians, it was a chance to show, via video link, just how difficult life is for them under Israeli occupation.

Their message was less about reform than about their plight.

Different messages

Indeed, the first thing that the Palestinian representative in London, Jerusalem-born Afif Safieh, said was that "this issue of reform should not be the tree that hides the forest".

Palestinian delegate Afif Safieh
Safieh spoke of the dispossession and dispersal of the Palestinians

He defined this as the dispossession and dispersal of his people.

The Israelis, who were not even invited to the dance, stood outside blocking the entry of others.

For them, it was a way of demonstrating their position that they will not talk to people who will not stop the violence.

In a curious sort of way, therefore, everybody got their message over.

And at least the video bit worked well.

It could lead to a whole new way of diplomacy.

'Road map'

There was also some substance behind the style.

Jack Straw, British Foreign Secretary
Straw said the pace of reform must quicken

Though it was little enough, and some of the discussions had an air of unreality about them given the level of what British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw called the "fear and loathing" in the region at the moment.

It was agreed that the Quartet - the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia - would meet on 10 February in London at official level.

There could then well be a ministerial meeting after that which would release the so-called "road map" - a series of proposals drawn up by the Quartet that are supposed to lead to a final settlement.

The Palestinians did put forward another draft of their proposed constitution, which is designed to separate the powers of a president from an executive prime minister.

This is a device to retire Mr Arafat upstairs.

Whether it actually happens is certainly a matter of conjecture and probably a matter of doubt.

Egyptian plan

The most interesting piece of work at the conference might actually have centred on a new effort by Egypt to get some sort of ceasefire, under the cover of which there could be negotiations on the "road map".

First aid for an injured victim
The Tel Aviv bombing sparked the travel ban

The emphasis on the Egyptian plan was revealed by the presence as a delegate of Omar Suleiman, the head of Egyptian intelligence.

General Suleiman is the right hand man of the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, and has himself advised Palestinians on their security set-up, as well as liaising with the Israelis.

The Egyptian plan is said to call for a year-long halt to Palestinian violence, especially suicide bombings, and also a halt to Israeli targeted killings of suspected gunmen and bombers.

Such a ceasefire, it is argued, could help the chances of the "road map".

It envisages tentative borders for a Palestinian state by the end of 2003 and final borders by 2005.

It will be published, and pushed as a diplomatic option, after the Israeli elections on 28 January.

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See also:

14 Jan 03 | Politics
20 Dec 02 | Middle East
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14 Jan 03 | Middle East
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