Blair pressure retores Sharon meeting

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The Independent Online

Israel's hard-line Prime Minister Ariel Sharon bowed to pressure from Tony Blair and grudgingly agreed to meet visiting Foreign Secretary Jack Straw who has angered him with his comments on the causes of terrorism.

Sharon's office had announced earlier today that the prime minister would not meet Mr Straw.

He changed his mind after receiving a phone call from Prime Minister Tony Blair, Sharon's office said in a statement.

Israel was angered by a Straw commentary, published in an Iranian newspaper, concerning the causes of terrorism.

"One of the factors that helps breed terror is the anger that many people in the region feel at events over the years in the Palestinian territories," Mr Straw wrote.

Israeli officials complained that the Straw comment could be seen as ascribing blame to Israel for terror attacks against it.

In his phone conversation with Mr Blair, Sharon "expressed the outrage and disappointment in Israel over the expressions made by the Foreign Secretary Mr Straw," Sharon's office said.

Israeli President Moshe Katsav also cancelled a planned meeting with Straw. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres called off a dinner he was to have given in Straw's honour, although he will meet the British visitor, the Foreign Ministry said.

Katsav called Straw's remarks "ill-considered and irresponsible" and said he cancelled his meeting with the British visitor at Sharon's request. It was not clear whether Katsav would agree to receive Straw in the wake of Sharon's reversal.

The president said Britain and other European states were trying to ingratiate themselves with sponsors of terrorism in order to avoid being targeted themselves.

"Europe itself is not immune to terrorism, I'm surprised that Europe doesn't mobilise with all its strength to root out terrorism, " Katsav told Israel radio. "I'm sorry that Europe is trying to save its own skin, it maybe fears some kind of reaction."

Mr Straw was on a visit to Teheran as part of the American and British effort to form an international coalition against terrorism in the wake of the deadly attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.

Israel told the British on Monday that it is concerned about statements by Mr Straw which could be interpreted as "ascribing blame" to Israel.

The Foreign Office said that Mr Straw's comments were in line with government policy. A statement from Mr Straw, released by the British Embassy in Tel Aviv, defended the foreign secretary's record in opposing terrorism.

"There is never any excuse for terrorism. At the same time, there is an obvious need to understand the environment in which terrorism breeds," it said. "That is why the whole of the international community is so concerned to see a lasting peace in the Middle East."

Israel regards Iran as a primary threat and says Tehran has thousands of missiles aimed at Israel from southern Lebanon and supports the Lebanon-based Hezbollah militia and radical Palestinian groups such as Islamic Jihad, and Hamas.

Israel also hold Hezbollah responsible for deadly car-bomb attacks at the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires 1992 and a Jewish community centre in the Argentine capital in 1994.

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