Wednesday, Jul 16, 2003
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By Hasan Suroor
In what is widely seen here as a "rebuff'' to Mr Sharon's campaign to isolate the veteran Palestinian leader, the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, turned down a formal Israeli request to snap links with Mr Arafat and made it clear that Britain would continue to deal with him as he was the democratically elected leader of the Palestinian people.
Mr Sharon had raised the issue during a dinner meeting with Mr Blair in Downing Street on Monday hours after he spoke to the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, on the issue. Mr Straw was equally blunt in stating the British position.
Israel has been insisting that British officials should not meet Mr Arafat when they visit the region. An Israeli official said, "any contact with Arafat weakens (the Palestinian Prime Minister) Mahmoud Abbas''.
Britain, though not exactly pleased with Mr Arafat, resents the idea of being dictated to by Israel as to whom its representatives should or should not meet. It is also firmly of the view that it is for the Palestinians to choose their leader and so long as Mr Arafat remains the democratically elected President of the Palestinian Authority, Britain would continue to recognise him as a legitimate figure.
This is Mr Sharon's first visit to Britain in over a decade, and comes in the wake of a series of bitter rows with the Blair Government whom he regards as being partial to the Palestinians.
Mr Sharon was greeted by a group of Palestinian protesters when he drove into Downing Street, but for most part, it has been a quiet visit. Despite continuing differences on a host of issues, such as release of Palestinian prisoners and dismantling of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Mr Sharon's discussions were described as a "new start'' in British-Israeli relations.
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