Clare Short faces a barrage of criticism from Israel after speech

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The Independent Online
Angered by a speech made by Clare Short sympathising with the plight of the Palestinians, Israel yesterday tried to stop the Secretary of State for Overseas Development from meeting with the Israeli politician regarded as the architect of the Oslo peace accords.

The Israeli embassy yesterday confirmed that it had asked Yossi Beilin, the former Israeli deputy foreign minister, who is visiting Britain, not to see Ms Short, though he will see Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary.

Ron Prosor, spokesman for the embassy, said: "It is true that the embassy recommended that he [Mr Beilin] not meet Clare Short."

The row with Israel comes on the eve of a visit to Britain by Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, to meet Tony Blair, the Prime Minister.

Although Mr Beilin chose to ignore Israeli foreign ministry advice by meeting with Ms Short last night, Mr Prosor added: "He will be meeting Clare Short alone without the [Israeli] ambassador."

The row began after a speech by Ms Short to Medical Aid for the Palestinians, a charitable group, three weeks ago. She said in the speech: "I am very conscious of the historical wrongs done to the Palestinian people - and the unfairness of the world's expectation that they should make sacrifices to make up for the evil done by Europeans during the Holocaust."

Asserting that Ms Short had compared Israel's attitude towards the Palestinians and the Nazis' attitude towards the Jews, the Israeli Foreign Ministry made a protest. Ms Short was said by an official at her department yesterday to feel that "she didn't mean to cause any offence and doesn't believe it was an offensive remark." He said that she was merely giving the historic context of the present conflict.

The aggressiveness of the Israeli response is in keeping with the policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, which frequently implies that any criticism is inspired by anti-Semitism or by hostility to Israel. Hami Shalev, an Israeli commentator, said in the daily Ma'ariv yesterday that Israel's Foreign Ministry had launched a campaign to attack critics, such as the United Nations, as "hostile and anti-Semitic". He said this was a regression to Israeli attitudes prior to the first high level Palestinian-Israeli meeting in Madrid in 1991.

In her speech, Ms Short recalled that she had visited the West Bank and Gaza on three or four occasions. She said: "The hope and pain I felt - particularly during my visit at the beginning of the intifada [Palestinian uprising] - will always remain with me."

In common with other European Union countries, British policy towards Israel has toughened over the past year since Mr Netanyahu became Prime Minister. Before Labour was elected Britain had condemned the building of the Israeli settlement at Jabal Abu Ghneim, called Har Homa by Israel, in Jerusalem; the overall expansion of Israeli settlements; and the confiscation of Palestinian ID cards in Jerusalem. It has also emphasised that Israeli concerns about security must be satisfied.

There is little sign of British policy towards the Middle East changing under Labour, though the Government says it will give a higher priority to human rights and to ending the economic isolation of the Palestinian enclaves.

The United States and Israel have largely succeeded in excluding other foreign powers from effective intervention in peace negotiations with the Palestinians. However, the EU countries are the largest donors to the Palestinian Authority in Gaza and the West Bank.

Mr Arafat's first meeting with Tony Blair on Monday will form part of a two-day visit to Britain by the Palestinian leader. Mr Arafat has been trying to build up international support to force Mr Netanyahu to implement the Interim Agreement of 1995, the present phase of the Oslo accords. Under this, Israel should withdraw from most of the West Bank; Gaza would get an airport and port; and there would be free passage between Gaza and the West Bank.

After a few days without rioting there was increased tension yesterday in Hebron, the Palestinian city of 120,000, effectively partitioned earlier in the year to protect 400 Jewish settlers there. For the first time since the agreement shots were fired at a settler building, prompting Uzi Dayan, the Israeli commander in the West Bank, to close all Palestinian shops in the Israeli sector of the city.

I am very conscious of the historical wrongs done to the Palestinian people - and the unfairness of the world's expectation that they should make sacrifices to make up for the evil done by Europeans during the Holocaust.