Blair takes first steps in the Middle East

By Adel Darwish (April 18 1998)

Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair arrived in Cairo on

17 April on the first leg of a four-nation tour aimed at kick

starting the stalled Middle East Peace process. Britain is

currently president of the European Union.

Blair spent just over 24 hours in Egypt, Britain's oldest

ally in the region before flying to Saudi Arabia. British

diplomats said it was important for the tour to start with

Egypt and to follow with two more Arab countries (Saudi

Arabia and Jordan) before Blair went to Israel in order to

avoid upsetting the Arabs. The Arabs have always

considered the British Conservatives to be more

sympathetic to them and have traditionally regarded Blair's

Labour party as pro-Israel.

Armed with huge moral success in his role as

peacemaker in Northern Ireland in early April, Blair

intended to hold up this mirror of success to remind Arabs

and Israelis that, if there is a will, there will be ways to find

peace. But beyond this moral encouragement there is very

little Blair can offer. His role is merely an extension of the

American role, since the Middle East parties agree that the

US holds all the cards.

The Arabs see Europe as more even-handed, while

accusing the US of taking a pro-Israeli line under pressure

from the American Jewish lobby. The Israelis on the other

hand see the Europeans' role as an yet another phase of

their historic colonial involvement in the region while " the

Americans understand the situation better", in the words of

Israel Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu has been accused by peace partners such

as Egypt and Jordan of "reversing the fortunes of peace

that was achieved in the Oslo agreement", as an editorial

in the Egyptian semi-official newspaper Al-Ahram said. The

Oslo agreement was signed between the PLO and the

Israelis in 1993 to give the Palestinians self rule and to pull

most of Israeli troops from the occupied West bank.

In an interview with Al-Ahram, Blair praised Egypt's

economic success. President Mubarak of Egypt said

Britain was the second largest investor in Egypt after the

US. But there are nevertheless diplomatic problems

between Egypt and Britain. Cairo wants the extradition of

Islamic fundamentalists living in Britain who were found

guilty on terrorist charges - including murder - in Egyptian

courts.

There is no extradition treaty between Egypt and

Britain. However, the British Embassy last month refused

entry visa to Egyptian Islamic activists who wanted to

attend a conference in London organised by Islamic

groups including Gammat Islamyha - the group

responsible for last year' massacre in Luxor where 53

people were killed, including Britons.

The same issue was on the agenda with the Saudi

Arabians. The Saudis too, among other Gulf states, have

accused Britain of becoming "a haven for (Islamic)

terrorists," as one Saudi columnist wrote last year. Blair

said he will introduce a bill to Parliament to make it illegal

to plot against a foreign government on British soil or

support terrorism abroad from British soil.

There is another issue in Saudi Arabia which clouds

bilateral relations. The fate of the two British nurses found

guilty of murdering an Australian nurse in the strictly

Muslim kingdom. This is a diplomatic minefield, as Blair

had to be careful not to push too hard in a country where

Islam is the law of the land at the same time as showing

he cared about British citizens. There is some hope,

according to Saudi sources, since the case has now

moved from the strictly Islamic courts to the minister of

interior. Some kind of agreement might be reached for the

two women to spend part of the sentence in Britain.

Trade, defence and security are also sensitive issues.

The Saudis were reluctant to participate in a military attack

against Iraq during the UN inspectors' crisis in February.

Crown Prince Abdullah - who is now making the strategic

decisions, as King Fahd's health prevents him from getting

too involved - is more sympathetic to general mass Arab

opinion, which is pro-Iraq. The oil-rich kingdom struck

lucrative arms deals with Britain during the Tory

government, but there has not been much activity under

Labour.

Blair planned to encourage the Saudis to increase

business deals and perhaps buy the new Eurofighter

2000. But with the oil prices plummeting, the Saudis are

restricting their budget. Blair's six-hour visit to Jordan on

Sunday and his lunch with King Hussein, was seen as

more of courtesy call on an old and trusted friend. But he

was to assure the king that Britain and the EU will continue

to gently press Israel into honouring the Oslo agreement

and also to persuade the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat

that an all-Arab assurance on security and anti-terrorist

measures will help persuade the Israelis to move on the

peace front. This is the message Blair planned to put to

Arafat later in his tour. The Visit to Gaza was to follow a

heavy schedule in Israel.

British Jews hoped Blair would repair the damage

caused by Foreign Secretary Robin Cook's controversial

visit in March when he upset the Israelis by accompanying

Palestinian officials on a visit to the Har-Homa Jewish

settlement to highlight its illegality in international law. The

Israelis snubbed him by cancelling a dinner invitation with

Netanyahu, and they did not send officials to escort him to

the airport.

Blair won the sympathy of British Jews by lighting

candle at his home on the first night of the Chanukah - the

Jewish festival of lights - last December and by inviting

Israeli and Jewish personalities to tea to mark the start of

celebrations marking 50 years of Israeli independence. But

many Britons, Jews and non-Jews, have petitioned Blair to

raise the issue of Israeli scientist Mordechai Vanunu who

has been in solitary confinement for more than over 12

years for high treason. Vanunu blew the whistle on Israel's

nuclear arms' programme to the Sunday Times. The

Mossad secret service kidnapped him and he was tried in

Israel. Campaigners for his release travelled separately

and planned to hold a vigil outside Netanyahu office during

the Blair visit.

Unlike Cook, Tony Blair was doing his business

behind closed doors and reminding Netanyahu that Israeli

troops must complete their redeployment in the West bank

according to Oslo agreement, if the peace process is to

move ahead.

But the visit also ran into controversy when Blair

announced his intention of laying a wreath at the tomb of

the former Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin,

assassinated by a Jewish extremist in November 1995.

The killer said Rabin was a traitor for signing the peace

deal with Arafat. His widow, Leah Rabin, invited the former

Labour prime minister, Shimon Peres, and the Labour

opposition leader Eyhude Barak to join Blair during the

event. This infuriated Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud

government, especially as Mrs. Rabin often accuses

Netanyahu in public of being responsible for the death of

her husband He created, in her words "a general

atmosphere of hatred" in pursuit of his anti- peace views.

Netanyahu's office tried to persuade the Israeli

Foreign Ministry - which has had to work doubly hard to

improve Israel's image since Netanyahu came to power -

to bar the two Labour leaders from attending the ceremony

at Rabin's tomb. But the Foreign Ministry said it was Mrs.

Rabin's moral right to invite whoever she liked to the event.