LONDON: Tony Blair arrived in Washington on Wednesday to urge President George W. Bush to launch a limited initiative to restart the Middle East peace process, as part of a drive to retain moderate Muslim support for the war against the Taliban.

A statement by Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, supporting a Palestinian state in principle is still under discussion within the Bush administration, according to British government sources. The statement would be made before the start of the UN general assembly in New York this weekend.

Blair, who flew to Washington by Concorde on its first day back in service, met Bush for lightning talks largely to report on his visit last week to the Middle East. They also discussed a conference of donor nations to improve humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, and the failure to make rapid progress on the composition of a post-Taliban government.

According to British sources, the statement by Powell would tell the Israelis that the current impasse, including the occupation of Palestinian towns, is “not taking the Middle East or Israel anywhere”. Powell would be equally hard on the PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, and the need for the Palestinian authorities to arrest its gunmen.

The statement would mark a departure in administration policy. Bush has yet to meet Arafat. The decision on whether, and in what form, Powell should back a Palestinian state is partly dependent on the progress the Israeli foreign minister, Shimon Peres, makes in persuading his hardline prime minister, Ariel Sharon, to back a peace package.

The two men are due to discuss the issue on Friday in Al Quds following Peres’s talks with Arafat in Europe. Peres has warned Sharon that if Israel does not come up with its own proposals, an alternative will be imposed by the EU and the west.

British sources said that they were sceptical of Peres’s influence over Sharon. To Washington’s annoyance, Sharon cancelled plans to travels to London and Washington this week, citing the security crisis in Israel. Arafat and Peres are both due in New York this weekend, but it is not clear whether Powell will meet Arafat.

Peres has proposed the establishment of a Palestinian state starting with ‘Gaza First. In 1993, peace talks succeeded on a plan for Israeli redeployment termed ‘Jericho and Gaza First.’ The new proposal includes a redeployment of Israeli troops from the Gaza strip and the dismantling of settlements. It also includes a big economic aid package in which Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian state would benefit from being associate members of the EU.

Blair was concerned that the Palestinians did not believe any peace process would be genuine, but would fizzle out as soon as the intifada was lifted. —Dawn/The Guardian News Service.

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