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Blair tested by US support for Sharon policy

By Patrick Bishop and Toby Helm

(Filed: 16/04/2004)

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, appeared to distance the British Government last night from President George W Bush's endorsement of Israel's Middle East peace plan.

He denied suggestions that Mr Bush's action would complicate the coalition's task in Iraq, but made clear Mr Bush had not been speaking for the "quartet" of international mediators - America, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.

"He has to make his own judgments. We make our own," Mr Straw told a news conference.

If the Israeli plan to remove settlements and forces from Gaza went ahead, Mr Straw said, it would provide the beginnings of a "real and viable" Palestinian state. But many other details had yet to be agreed before there could be a comprehensive settlement, he added.

"All sides - Israel, the Palestinians and the international community - have always accepted that at the end of the final status negotiations there will have to be compromises on each side," he said.

Mr Bush's comments have left America's policy at odds with Europe's over the Middle East and Tony Blair has again found himself in the middle.

The Prime Minister chose his words carefully when reacting to the news - which seems to have taken Downing Street somewhat by surprise - emerging from the highly successful meeting between Mr Bush and Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister. He limited himself to applauding the proposed Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank that is central to Mr Sharon's "disengagement" proposal.

But he had nothing to say about the retention of major Jewish settlements which lie outside Israel's 1967 boundaries or the rejection of Palestinian refugees' demands to return to the land they lost after Israel was created.

Both have the blessing, implicit in the first case, explicit in the second, of the president. By apparently endorsing these Israeli positions in advance, Mr Bush is settling crucial questions which under the existing international "road map" for peace should only be finalised by negotiation.

Yesterday the EU made its displeasure clear in a communique from the presidency. It declared that the "EU will not recognise any change to the pre-1967 borders other than those arrived at by agreement".

As for the so-called right of return, any settlement "must include an agreed, just and fair solution to the refugee issue".

The UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, is also reported to be opposed to the new developments. Mr Bush has justified the shift by saying he has only brought into the open the likely lineaments of a final settlement as suggested by previous US-overseen initiatives, notably the abortive negotiations of 2000. But this view is unlikely to persuade the Palestinians or anyone else in the Arab world.

To them, Mr Bush's words, hedged though they might be by a statement of support for an eventual "viable, contiguous, sovereign and independent [Palestinian] state", are a further confirmation of their belief that America is firmly on Israel's side and has no credibility as a broker.

The Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, responded with veiled threats of a return of "the vicious cycle of violence in the region". Washington is clearly banking on a contrary effect. The hope must be that an early Israeli withdrawal could bring some measure of quiet on one Middle Eastern front. But this seems likely to be undermined by the impression that the tilt towards Sharon will create across the region.

The underlying justification for the administration's war with, and occupation of, Iraq is that America's ultimate aim is to deliver freedom and justice to the Arab world. To many moderate Arabs in the Middle East, Mr Bush's policy shift smacks of imperial high-handedness. Many outside the area will agree. Mr Blair may now feel that his supportiveness of his friend is approaching its limits.