Blair pushes for revival of peace process during dinner with Bush

Tony Blair called on US President George Bush to ensure real progress on the Middle East peace process within six months last night.

Labour ministers, frustrated by the President's failure to move on the Middle East in his first term, are hopeful that Yasser Arafat's death will kickstart the peace process.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said yesterday that Mr Arafat's death heralded "a new era". The spokesman said that, while Britain had not hidden its differences with him, Mr Arafat had helped to establish the vision of a two-state solution. "The important thing is to move forward and implement that vision," he said.

Mr Blair became the first foreign leader to meet the newly-elected President when he arrived in Washington last night and, at a one-to-one dinner, the Prime Minister sought a firm commitment from Mr Bush that he would throw his administration's full weight behind a renewed drive to resolve the Palestinian question.

British officials played down hopes that the two leaders would unveil a new blueprint on the Middle East when they hold a joint press conference at the White House today. But Mr Blair told close colleagues: "People should judge progress in six months." The deadline is significant, since Mr Blair is thought to have pencilled in a general election for May. It is a sign that Mr Blair feels that he needs to show a tangible return for his unwavering support for a US President.

Although the Prime Minister has played down talk of a direct "payback" for Iraq, British ministers see his Washington visit in precisely those terms. "Tony has earned the right to cash in his chips," one said.

Mr Blair was expected to use last night's meeting to remind the President of his political difficulties over Iraq. "The Americans think the Tories are going nowhere. But Tony will be reminding them we have got politics and an election in Britain too," said the spokesman.

While Mr Blair admits privately that some voters who opposed the Iraq war will never be won back, he hopes to persuade some critics to look forwards rather than backwards. "The Iraq elections in January and progress on the Middle East are the two hurdles we need to clear," said one Blair aide.

Mr Blair was armed with figures showing that only 18 per cent of America's Jewish population voted for President Bush when he won re-election ­ a sign that he can afford to step up pressure on Israel.

London hopes that the death of Mr Arafat will provide a greater opportunity to kickstart the peace process. "With Arafat gone, it means the Americans will engage," one cabinet minister said yesterday. The two leaders will discuss ways the international community can help the Palestinians to hold elections, and assist with policing, administration, the economy and political development.

British officials said that last night's meeting, further talks and a working lunch today would not produce a timetable or detailed proposals, but predicted that the President and Prime Minister would agree a "work plan" for their respective governments to take forward.

Officials said it was too early to talk about final status talks or a peace conference in London, saying that the first priority was to "send a clear signal of intent to produce the momentum to drive the process forward". A spokesman added that while the US was "in a unique position" to help the process, London and Washington could not make progress without the support of the "players in the region".

Mr Blair said yesterday: "That goal of a viable Palestinian state, alongside a secure Israel, is one that we must continue to work tirelessly to achieve. Peace in the Middle East must be the international community's highest priority. We will do whatever we can, working with the US and the EU, to help the parties reach a fair and durable settlement."

During his 24-hour visit, Mr Blair will also press the President to "re-engage" with Europe ­ notably France and Germany ­ in his second term and to back Britain's two priorities when it takes over the G8 presidency in January ­ climate change and poverty in Africa. He is expected to oppose any US military intervention to stop Iran developing nuclear weapons and raise the position of the four Britons still detained at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Defending his relationship with the President, Mr Blair said yesterday that it was "part of my job". He told GMTV: "The relationship between Britain and the US is fantastically important. It is a huge strength of this country to have that relationship and if we are confronting this threat of terrorism in the world, it is important we confront it together."

REACTION FROM AROUND THE WORLD

"The latest events are likely to present a historic turning point in the Middle East. Israel will continue its efforts to reach a political settlement with the Palestinians, without delay"

Ariel Sharon, Israeli Prime Minister

"With him disappears the man of courage who, for 40 years, has embodied the Palestinians' combat for recognition of their national rights. May the loss that they have just suffered unite the Palestinians"

Jacques Chirac, French President

"He expressed and symbolised in his person the national aspirations of Palestinians. Now, both sides must make greater efforts to bring about the realisation of the Palestinian right of self-determination"

Kofi Annan, UN secretary general

The Israeli leadership can no longer use Yasser Arafat as "an excuse, a pretext for not moving toward peace ... Now the Israelis have to take the initiative to show their goodwill in this respect"

General Amr Moussa, secretary of the Arab League

"He was like a surrealistic painting. He was complex, deep, superficial, rational, irrational, cold, warm. He may be the most fascinating person I have ever met, and without comparison, the most fascinating leader I have met"

- Nelson Mandela, former South African president

"Arafat's biggest mistake was when he turned to terrorism. His greatest achievements were when he tried to turn to peace"

Shimon Peres, former Israeli prime minister, who shared the Nobel peace prize with Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin in 1994

"Arafat's life stands for the varied and tragic history of the Palestinian people and the Middle East as a whole. In it were reflected many people's hopes for peace, but time and again also their disappointments and setbacks"

Joschka Fischer, German Foreign Minister

"Yasser Arafat led his people to an historic acceptance of the need for a two-state solution. I would like to express my condolences to the family of President Arafat and to the Palestinian people"

Tony Blair, Prime Minister

"The death of Yasser Arafat is a significant moment in Palestinian history. For the Palestinian people, we hope that the future will bring an independent, democratic Palestine that is at peace with its neighbours"

George Bush, US President

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