Arafat lobbies to join the Queen's club

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The British empire has long since crumbled. Now that Hong Kong is gone, there are hardly any red dots left on the map - let alone the red swaths that covered so much of the globe 50 or 100 years ago. And yet, a long line of countries is now keen to declare a kind of loyalty to the Queen. The latest supplicant: Palestine.

Yasser Arafat, the terrorist-turned-statesman Palestinian leader, yesterday met Tony Blair, the Prime Minister. They discussed the Middle East, and the need to push the peace process forward.

Important stuff, certainly. Today, however, Mr Arafat will hold a potentially more fruitful meeting in London - with Chief Emeka Anyaoku, Secretary- General of the Commonwealth. In his meeting, Mr Arafat will press Palestine's claim to join the club, the last vestige of Britain's imperial legacy.

Mr Arafat is following what is becoming a well-trodden path. Thirty years ago, the Commonwealth seemed little more than a left-over of Empire. Now, however, nobody wants to leave - and the number of those who want to join is increasing. Two years ago, the mostly Francophone Cameroon joined the Commonwealth. Formerly Portuguese Mozambique, too, has joined - despite some hesitation from other members of the club. Now, even Rwanda is seeking to join. Membership requires countries to "accept the Queen as head of the Commonwealth".

For Mr Arafat, the attraction of the Commonwealth is not just the cosy relationships that come free with every member's welcome pack, but also the signal that membership sends - that Palestine is a real country, not just an almost-state. Mr Arafat first bid for a form of "associate status" - but was told that there could be no halfway house.

The Commonwealth's apparent strength - one of the reasons for Mr Arafat to be interested in membership - is also one reason why Mr Arafat's application has run into some resistance. The human rights record of the Palestinian authorities has been patchy, at best. And yet, the new-look Commonwealth is keen to insist on a basic commitment to human rights - hence Nigeria's suspension from the club for the past two years. Mr Arafat may be required to give guarantees which, on past form, he would find difficult to meet.

The Palestinian bid for membership is partly based on Britain's historic link with Palestine - and therefore serves as a reminder why Britain should be interested in the region. Some Commonwealth diplomats even suggest that Israel might seek to join in due course. That still seems implausible. Britain may, however, find itself propelled closer to centre stage, in the tangled attempts to find a long-term peace settlement in the region.