Arafat: Peace is highest priority says Blair

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair today called for fresh efforts to achieve a Middle East peace deal in the wake of Yasser Arafat's death.

Tony Blair today called for fresh efforts to achieve a Middle East peace deal in the wake of Yasser Arafat's death.

The Prime Minister paid tribute to the Palestinian leader, who died in a French hospital in the early hours of the morning.

Mr Blair said the search for a settlement with the Israelis must be "reinvigorated" following his death.

"Obviously he was a huge icon for the Palestinian people. There is no doubt about that at all," he said.

"Whatever differences we had with him I think it is right to recognise that. I think the most important thing is to make sure we reinvigorate the peace process because there is misery for Palestinians, there is misery for Israelis who suffer terrorist activity.

"And in the meantime we have got a situation where it is a huge source of discontent and problem within the world so it is important we deal with it."

The PM was speaking ahead of a visit to Washington where he is expected to press newly re-elected US President George Bush to act over the Middle East.

The Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who will attend President Arafat's funeral, paid tribute to his "unquestionable devotion" to the "plight" of the Palestinian people.

He said that it would be "hard to imagine the Middle East without him" after he played such a dominant role in the region.

In a statement, he said: "I want to express my deep sympathy and condolences to the Palestinian people on the death of Yasser Arafat.

"President Arafat played such a dominant role on behalf of the Palestinians over so many decades that it is hard to imagine the Middle East without him.

"As the leader of his people, he created an international awareness of, and concern about, the plight of the Palestinian people. He displayed unquestionable devotion to his work.

"President Arafat led the Palestinian national movement through the 1980s and 1990s to an acceptance of Israel, a two state solution, and negotiation as the means to achieve that goal.

"He died knowing that the international community had committed itself to a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure state of Israel. As the Prime Minister has made clear, the United Kingdom will continue to do all it can to strive for that outcome."

Labour MP Richard Burden, chairman of the Britain-Palestine All-Party Group, said: "Yasser Arafat was 'Mr Palestine' for the best part of 40 years.

"He rose to prominence as a military figure, but the picture of him as a terrorist hell-bent on Israel's destruction, which the Israeli Government is fond of painting, is simplistic and wrong.

"As leader of the PLO in the 1970s he was one of those who spearheaded the compromise in which the Palestinians gave up their claim on all of historic Palestine, in favour of an independent state alongside Israel.

"In the following years he led the Palestinians to an explicit recognition of the state of Israel, to the Madrid Peace Talks in the early 1990s and to the Oslo Accords with Israeli premier Rabin in the mid 1990s.

"There is a myth that the collapse of the Oslo process was caused by Arafat's rejection of a generous offer by Prime Minister Barak at the Camp David talks in 2000. There was no Israeli offer of a viable independent state at Camp David. And while Arafat and Barak negotiated, confiscations of Palestinian land in the West Bank in Gaza continued and more illegal settlements were built.

"Arafat was no saint. He spent most of his adult life under the threat of assassination by Israel and sometimes by Arab extremists. There is no doubt he was left suspicious, autocratic and unwilling to delegate.

"But Israel's demonisation of Arafat and Sharon's attempts to isolate him both physically and politically, have been utterly short-sighted.

"They have ended up strengthening Islamist groups like Hamas at the expense of the secular PLO. Indeed, Israel's actions have even inhibited the emergence of new generation of forward-looking Palestinian leaders because no self-respecting Palestinian wanted to be implicated in Sharon's persecution of the Palestinians' existing elected President.

"Arafat once told the United Nations that he carried an olive branch in one hand and a freedom fighter's gun in the other.

"Ariel Sharon was only prepared to see the gun. President Bush's endorsement of such a blinkered view of Arafat only increased its folly.

"Now that Arafat has gone, the international community - and particularly the United States - must face its responsibilities. It must provide practical help to the Palestinian Authority in the difficult period ahead, both in Gaza and the West Bank.

"This is a sad day."