British Prime Minister Tony Blair's hopes of improving relations with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a blow Monday night when Blair was forced to rebuff an attempt by his Israeli counterpart to persuade Britain to sever all contact with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.
In a sign of Britain's fragile relations with Israel after a series of rows, Blair told Sharon over dinner in Downing Street that Britain would continue to deal with the democratically elected president of the Palestinian Authority.
On the first day of a three-day visit to Britain, Sharon tried to win British support for his policy of isolating the Palestinian president when he asked Foreign Minister Jack Straw and Blair to prevent officials meeting Arafat.
A senior Israeli official accompanying Sharon said: "Any contact with Arafat weakens [the Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud] Abbas."
But a foreign office spokeswoman dismissed Sharon's request. "We made clear that the UK position, which is also that of the European Union, is that we will continue to have dealings with Arafat, who is the democratically elected president of the Palestinian Authority," she said.
Blair believes privately that Arafat has become a liability, unlike Abbas who is fully committed to the US sponsored "road map" to peace. But Britain takes exception to being told who its officials should meet.
Straw tried to play down talk of a row by praising Sharon for signing up to the "road map," which sets out the route to a full Palestinian state, at a summit with Abbas, better known as Abu Mazen, in Jordan last month. "We know the huge amount of work you have been doing to help, in very great difficulties, the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians and we would like to commend you for that," he told him.
In a sign of Britain's determination to improve relations with Israel, after Sharon blocked Palestinian delegates from attending a conference in London in January, Downing Street also insisted that the prime minister had approached last night's talks in a "constructive manner."
Blair's official spokesman said: "The dinner is an opportunity for the two of them to sit down and talk about how we can move forward and not focus on differences in the past."
At a dinner attended only by Blair and Sharon and one senior official on either side, Blair urged Sharon to dismantle Israeli settlements in the West Bank, release Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, and halt construction of a security fence in the West Bank.
Only a handful of the estimated 60 outpost settlements, small hilltop tent and caravan encampments, have so far been taken down, and Israeli peace activists say many have already been rebuilt.
The senior official accompanying Sharon said that Israel was prepared to reward Abbas for his role in brokering a ceasefire by Palestinian militants by releasing 300 prisoners. But this falls a long way short of Abbas's call for all 6,000 prisoners to be freed.
As for Palestinian politics, Arafat and Abbas,worked out a power-sharing agreement Monday night that guarantees Arafat continued influence over negotiations with Israel and over Palestinian security forces, Palestinian officials said.
The agreement, which put to rest a threat by Abbas to resign, came as Israeli officials were stepping up their campaign to sideline Arafat, asserting that the peace process could not succeed as long as he retained any authority.