Straw praises 'positive' Israeli attitude

An upbeat Jack Straw praised Israel yesterday for its "very positive" attitude to the forthcoming Palestinian presidential election and suggested both sides could be on the verge of the best "opportunity for decades" to settle the conflict.

Sylvan Shalom, the Israeli Foreign Minister, said he would welcome British monitors to observe the elections to succeed Yasser Arafat. Mr Straw, his British counterpart, said he was "much encouraged" by Israel's stance, which Israeli ministers have indicated will include a military pullback from West Bank cities and provisions for Palestinians in east Jerusalem to vote.

Mr Straw was obliged to postpone until today a meeting with Ariel Sharon because the Israeli Prime Minister had lost his voice. He is also due to see Palestinian leaders in Ramallah today including Mahmoud Abbas, the new PLO chairman and the likeliest successor to the Palestinian presidency, and will visit to the tomb of Mr Arafat to place a wreath.

Amid growing signs that Tony Blair will visit Israel and the Palestinian leadership next month, Mr Straw said help with the peace process was now the top priority of British foreign policy. He said the effect of the conflict was so powerful through the region "that to resolve it would be a big prize".

Mr Straw robustly repeated Britain's official line that Israeli settlements on the Palestinian side of the pre-1967 "green line" were illegal under international law. He is likely to warn the Palestinian leadership today that a serious upsurge in violence could threaten both the elections and any hopes of peace talks.

A senior British official suggested yesterday that Mr Straw and his team had been relieved to discover indications, from a shift in approach after Mr Arafat's death, that Israel had been genuine in seeing the late president as an obstacle to peace talks and that a new relationship with the Palestinian leadership was possible. The official also said Mr Straw had been encouraged by Israel's apparent willingness to see progress on the internationally agreed road-map to peace.

But Mr Shalom remained adamant yesterday that there were "no short cuts or magic recipes" for peace talks and they would be possible only if "the terrorist option is removed from the equation".

He also criticised Mr Abbas for saying he would preserve the legacy of Yasser Arafat in any negotiations, including those on the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees displaced by the 1948 war.

Mr Straw used the example of Northern Ireland to say that no major talks aimed at solving conflict began without both sides "restating their existing positions".

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