Barak calls on Blair to back peace bid

ISRAEL'S PRIME Minister told Tony Blair yesterday he expected Britain to play a major role in the Middle East peace process and said he had no intention of backtracking on the Wye land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians.

Speaking during a stop-over in London on his way back to Israel from the United States, Ehud Barak said: "Britain can have a leading role within the European Union in supporting the peace process, in the same way that Britain, under the leadership of Tony Blair, played a unique role in deciding the Kosovo crisis."

Mr Barak said he would move swiftly to achieve peace with the Palestinians, though he would not be bound by timetables. "I won't ask for a medal if it takes nine months, but nor will I jump from any tower if it takes 24 months," he said.

Mr Blair pledged total support for Mr Barak's moves to accelerate peace talks with both the Palestinians and Syria. "Someone of Prime Minister Barak's leadership and vision is precisely the person that can take this process forward," he said. "I just wanted to put on record our admiration for what he has achieved so far and my 101 per cent support for all that he is doing for Israel and the Middle East peace process."

The Foreign Office is pleased Mr Barak chose London for his sole European stop-over after almost two weeks of frantic shuttle diplomacy that took him to several Arab capitals and the US.

Officials also made no secret of their delight that he had replaced the intransigent hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu as Israeli leader. One Foreign Office observer likened it to "emerging from the darkness into the sunlight". He said: "Barak wants the outside world to get involved whereas Netanyahu didn't."

Britain is playing down suggestions that the EU may displace the United States in negotiations between the parties. Instead, Europe wants to focus on financially underwriting any final agreement reached with the Palestinians, and with reviving the stalled process of integrating Israel into the region to boost trade and share the region's water and technology.

Although Mr Barak told Mr Blair he has no intention of putting talks with the Palestinians on the backburner while he concentrates on a deal over the Golan Heights with Syria, the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat still fears being sidelined.

Militant Palestinian leaders opposed to peace with Israel said yesterday they had agreed in principle to meet Mr Arafat to reconcile their differences. The meeting, the first in eight years between the Damascus-based leaders and Mr Arafat, comes as Syria's President, Hafez al-Assad, prepares to open negotiations on a peace treaty with Israel.

Officials from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Tayeb Abdel-Rahim, a senior aide of Mr Arafat, said preparations for a meeting were under way after discussions in Amman, the Jordanian capital. Syria's moves towards peace with Israel is making the position of the so-called "rejectionist" Palestinian parties, long resident in Damascus, untenable.

The PFLP, led by George Habash, and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, led by George Hawatmeh, are the two biggest parties of the leftist Palestinian opposition to the Oslo accords, which placed Mr Arafat at the head of the Palestinian quasi-state, based in Gaza.

Both Mr Habash and Mr Hawatmeh opposed the Oslo accords in principle, but have done little politically or militarily on the ground since they were signed. They refused to take part in the elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council in 1996 and their parties have lost much of their previous support.

Mr Hawatmeh confirmed there were talks with Mr Arafat's aides but said it was not yet decided if there would be a face-to-face meeting. Earlier in the year Mr Hawatmeh said he wanted to return from exile to live in Palestine.

Mr Arafat is clearly nervous of the momentum behind the renewal of peace talks between Israel and Syria and the warmth of the reception given to Mr Barak in Washington and London. The antagonism between Mr Clinton and Mr Netanyahu had increased Mr Arafat's influence on US policy.

He is not alone in his concern about political realignments in the Middle East. On Tuesday, Amr Moussa, the Egyptian Foreign Minister, also expressed his reservations.