Blair in West Asia, calls for ceasefire

MANAMA (BAHRAIN), NOV. 1. The British Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair, continuing on his West Asia shuttle, met his Israeli counterpart, Mr. Ariel Sharon, today and was scheduled to meet the Palestinian Authority President, Mr. Yasser Arafat later. Mr. Blair, who has repeatedly spoken of the ``Two-State solution'' to the Palestine-Israel dispute in recent days, has stressed on the need for a ceasefire at this juncture. An enduring ceasefire, however, appears elusive with Israel continuing its policy of assassinating Palestinian militants and Mr. Sharon setting near impossible standards for the Palestinians to meet.

The British Prime Minister has visited Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan in the course of this tour. At every stop, he has been lectured on the need to arrive at a just solution to the Palestine-Israel problem if global terrorism is to be uprooted. The Arab leaders also told Mr. Blair, who is seen in West Asia as little more than a special envoy of the U.S. President, that the West must realise that there is a distinction between terrorism and militancy in favour of the Palestinian cause. Today in Jerusalem, Mr. Blair was confronted with the other side of the story wherein Israel sought to convince him that the offer of any concessions to the Palestinians before the violence was ended would be tantamount to a surrender before terrorism.

Mr. Blair has been trying to square off the equation by talking of the basic points on which a solution to the dispute must be fixed. For any solution to be just and lasting it is necessary that Israel's security be assured but at the same time it is also necessary that the Palestinians be assured of just and equal treatment and that they have a State of their own. At a joint press conference with Mr. Sharon today, Mr. Blair pointed out that even if the two sides continued to fight each other for many more years they would eventually have to revert to the same fixed positions if they were to have a lasting solution. But before the substantial issues can be taken up, Mr. Blair pointed out, there was a need to end the current circle of violence through the implementation of the Mitchell and Tenet plans.

Mr. Sharon too reiterated a line he has adopted of late that he is prepared to make even ``painful concessions'' if the Palestinians put a complete end to violence. However, he has refused to give any pledge on the time-frame within which Israel is likely to withdraw from four West Bank towns which its army has re-invaded, let alone mention the future status of the Jewish settlements. Although the Palestinian Authority has issued orders that fire is not to be directed at Israelis even when the Israeli side shoots first, it is very unlikely that the Palestinian militant groups will remain quiet under conditions of occupation.

However, Mr. Sharon wants even more. He wants the PA to quell all forms of incitement as well. His demand is understandable if it was confined to anti-Israel propaganda aired over the Authority-owned radio and TV, or even media controlled by Palestinian opposition groups. But Israel has often spoken in the past of the incitement contained in school textbooks which cannot obviously be changed in a hurry. Unless Israel clarifies what it means by incitement this looks like an open-ended excuse not to talk to the Palestinians.

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