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January 20, 2003

Makes you feel good when you can post something positive! Blair moves to repair ties with Israel
Prime Minister Tony Blair has moved to repair Britain’s recently frayed ties with Israel and has personally pledged to reduce barriers to future defence sales.

In talks last week with visiting Israeli Labour Party leader Amram Mitzna, he promised a more sympathetic approach to such sales — against the background of protests in Jerusalem at what it feels has become a de facto arms embargo.

Diplomatic ties were further strained by Israel’s refusal to allow Palestinian officials to visit London for a conference on reforming the Palestinian Authority, held at the Foreign Office on Tuesday.

But after the conference, Mr Blair, chief-of-staff Jonathan Powell, and foreign policy adviser Sir David Manning — a former envoy to Tel Aviv — met Israeli Ambassador Zvi Shtauber in an apparent bid to patch up differences.

Mr Shtauber received a warm welcome at Downing Street, where he handed Mr Blair with a letter from Israeli Premier Ariel Sharon. The envoy thanked Mr Blair for his role in keeping the recent bilateral strains from becoming a fully fledged public falling-out.

During their discussions, Mr Blair emphasised that he remained a firm friend of Israel and recognised the challenges it faced to its security. This sentiment was underlined by Mr Powell, who reportedly re-marked that, apart from America, Britain was Israel’s greatest friend.

The ambassador was also told that Britain would renew talks with Israel about moving the peace process forward once this month’s elections in Israel were over.

Though Mr Sharon’s letter rejected Mr Blair’s appeal to reverse the travel ban on the Palestinian officials, it was not critical of Britain. The Israeli leader did, however, reiterate his view that attempts to reform the PA could not succeed under Yasir Arafat’s leadership.

This conflicts with the position taken by Foreign Office Minister Mike O’Brien, in a “Newsnight” interview, that Britain would not refuse to “do business” with Mr Arafat.

“He does actually have a substantial amount of support among the Palestinian people,” Mr O’Brien said. “He is their elected leader.” While critical of Mr Arafat, Britain would continue to deal with him, “because we need to move this [reform] process forward.”