Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, criticised Tony Blair and the British Government in a newspaper interview yesterday, only hours before Silvan Shalom, the Israeli Foreign Minister, flew to London for a visit that was supposed to repair relations between Britain and Israel, which are at their most strained for years.
Mr Sharon, in comments to The Jerusalem Post, accused Mr Blair and the Government of "unnecessary intervention" in Israel's affairs.
His remarks appeared to be provoked by Mr Blair's efforts to link the Iraq war to the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. He has pushed hard for the new road-map peace plan, which calls for an independent Palestinian state within three years.
In particular, Mr Sharon singled out Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, saying his recent comments were "very grave in my eyes". Mr Straw had said the West was guilty of "double standards" for enforcing United Nations Security Council resolutions on Iraq, but not enforcing resolution 242, which calls for Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories.
He went on to blame Mr Blair. "He may be a friend of Israel today, but those expressions, those comparisons, the demands on Israel, appeared to me to as unnecessary intervention," he said.
Mr Sharon may have focused on Mr Straw's comments, but his reasons for what appeared to be a calculated outburst probably go further. Mr Blair is seen as the driving force behind President George Bush's new commitment to the road-map peace plan.
In the run-up to the war on Iraq, Mr Blair insisted on the need to pursue the peace process while removing Saddam Hussein from power. Israeli commentators say the Sharon government fears that Mr Blair has Mr Bush's ear.
Several other recent events have strained relations. Two Britons – James Miller, a television cameraman, and Iain Hook, a UN worker – were killed by Israeli soldiers in the occupied territories, and a third, the peace activist Tom Hurndall, is in a coma after being shot while trying to help Palestinian children under fire.
The atmosphere was also soured by the disclosure that two Britons were responsible for a suicide bombing in which three Israelis were killed at a bar in Tel Aviv last month.
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