London Calling

After half a century, Britain rejoins the fray

Under the rotating presidency of Great Britain, the European Union has in recent weeks strengthened its role in Middle East peacemaking efforts. Although Prime Minister Tony Blair stressed during his recent visit to the region that Europe's contribution was a "complimentary" one, the fact is London and Washington do appear to be coordinating positions.

Britain's special relationship with the US, especially since the Reagan-Thatcher years, has seen her allied to Washington in showdowns with Mideast tyrants such as Muammar Ghadaffi and Saddam Hussein. But the burgeoning influence of the EU as the world's "second superpower" has London asserting an increasingly "European" identity.

And since the 1993 signing of the Oslo accords, the EU has been the largest financial sponsor of the Palestinian self-rule administration. It's demanding a say in developments here that reflects the size of its US$1,8 billion investment.

Israel has reason to be concerned about an enhanced EU role: member countries, primarily France and Britain, have since the beginning of the century held traditionally Arab-leaning positions. Europe generally supports the Arabs' view that the US is unfairly biased in favour of Israel. For those concerned about Washington's real agenda here, that assessment is deeply disturbing.

Yet in his first foray into Middle East diplomacy, Blair displayed a courteous empathy which plays well with many Israelis. His conduct contrasted sharply with that of his bungling Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, whose earlier visit was an embarrassing exercise in ham-handedness.

But although he managed not to offend, Blair did not shift from the European line, which calls for more Israeli concessions to break the Oslo deadlock--while effectively condoning Palestinian Authority violations of signed agreements.

The major achievement of his visit was his offer to host meetings in London in early May involving Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu, PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

He stressed he was not trying to supplant the US role in attempts to forge peace in the Middle East, but that American proposals to kick-start the Oslo process would form the basis of the London talks. (US State Department spokesmen, James Rubin, welcomed the European effort, but stressed that the idea of a London meeting was Albright's.)

Arab reaction to the London proposal was muted, but Arafat agreed nevertheless to attend the meetings, which he chose to see as a joint US-European effort to pressurise Netanyahu into guaranteeing Israeli implementation of the interim accords.

The process is stuck over the scope and timing of the next Israeli troop withdrawal from rural areas of Judea-Samaria on the one hand, and Israeli claims that the PA is not honouring its commitments, especially those concerning security, on the other.

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