TEL AVIV: Israel protested to Tony Blair on Thursday at what it called his “worrying and outrageous” comments linking the war in Iraq to a settlement of the Palestinian conflict, and at the UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw’s accusations of western double standards over the enforcement of UN resolutions on Israel.
But the vehemence and timing of the protest, as the British prime minister met President George Bush to discuss the war and reaffirm their commitment to the “road map” to Middle East peace, reflected a growing Israeli fear that Mr Blair now exercises more influence than Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, over White House policy on the Jewish state.
The Israelis are particularly unnerved at the prospect of Mr Blair stiffening American demands over illegal Jewish settlements and forcing the pace on the creation of an independent Palestinian state far beyond the emasculated dependency Mr Sharon has in mind.
The director general of Israel’s foreign ministry, Yoav Biran, called in the British ambassador, Sherard Cowper-Coles, to lodge the protest.
“The ambassador was told that we find the latest British statements worrying and outrageous,” said Jonathon Peled, a foreign ministry spokesman.
Earlier this week, Mr Blair said that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a primary cause of the rift between the Muslim world and the west, and that resolving it would be a British and American priority once the Iraq war was over.
Mr Straw said there was “real concern that the west has been guilty of double standards — on the one hand saying the United Nations Security Council resolutions on Iraq must be implemented, on the other hand, sometimes appearing rather quixotic over the implementation of resolutions about Israel and Palestine”.
Mr Cowper-Coles said he had sought to reassure the Israelis that Britain would not do anything to endanger their security, and that it was best guaranteed by an equitable settlement for the Palestinians.
Last month, Mr Sharon was openly celebrating the international rift over the war in Iraq, believing that it negated the influence of the EU, UN and Russia in the “quartet” of nations overseeing the road map to a peaceful settlement. Mr Sharon said that left Israel having to deal only with a sympathetic White House.
But Mr Blair has unnerved the Israelis. At first they saw his persistent references to the need for a settlement of the Palestinian question as politicking to offset domestic opposition to a war on Iraq.
But now the Israelis fear Mr Blair means what he says, particularly after Mr Bush reaffirmed his commitment to the road map in its present form at the Camp David summit, which could mean an independent and much larger Palestinian state than the Israelis want within three years.
Mr Sharon has had little choice but to embrace the road map publicly because he cannot afford to cross Mr Bush. But the Israeli government has done all it can to stall implementation.
It has already won three delays from the Americans, and submitted more than 100 amendments that included dropping any commitment to create an “independent” Palestinian state in favour of one with only some “attributes of sovereignty”.
Until last week, Mr Sharon apparently believed he could drag out the process while continuing to undermine the feasibility of a viable Palestine.
But he was caught off guard by Mr Bush’s announcement that the road map would be published as soon as a Palestinian prime minister was in place, and that it would lead to the creation of a viable independent state. The Israelis blame Mr Blair for the hardening of the American president’s position.
However, some of Mr Sharon’s aides are counting on powerful hawks in the US administration and the power of the pro-Israel lobby to offset Mr Blair’s influence once the Iraq war is out of the way.
“I don’t think basic American policy will change,” said Zalman Shoval, a former ambassador to Washington. “And we think Blair is realistic enough to realize that every time someone tries to set a fixed timetable it blows up in their face. He won’t want to push this too far.”—Dawn/The Guardian News Service.