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Analysis: Blair, Arafat seek gains

Arafat hopes his meeting with Blair puts him a step closer to a White House visit  

By CNN European Political Editor Robin Oakley

LONDON, England (CNN) -- Both sides stood to gain from Monday's meeting between UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Blair wanted Arafat's backing of U.S.-led military action in Afghanistan. Arafat's presence in London was an important sign of reassurance to Arab members of the anti-terrorist coalition, and the Palestinian Authority president was eager to distance himself from Osama bin Laden, who -- in statements -- has laid claim to the Palestinian cause.

"There can be no mix between our just cause and objectives and methods that are unjust ... terrorist acts and the killing of civilians. ... This is the position of the Arab world and the Muslim world," Arafat said.

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Arafat, meanwhile, hoped the session with Blair would prove a step towards a meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush, which he hasn't had since Bush came to office in January.

Bush says he's willing to meet Arafat, but only if it will help the Middle East peace process.

Arafat took his chance following a public falling-out between Bush and Ariel Sharon over the Israeli prime minister's warning not to sacrifice Israel to appease Arab states -- a statement Bush called "unacceptable."

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Both Bush and Blair are pushing hard for the Middle East peace process to be reinvigorated -- to be given a jump start, as they're saying in Downing Street -- because they see it as the key to ending much Arab resentment against the United States. America is often seen as too much on the side of Israel.

Blair and his advisers want to see a restarting of the process set out by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell before the September 11 terror attacks in the United States.

But they impressed on Arafat that if the Mitchell process is to resume, Arabs and Israelis both must end all military or semi-terrorist action and return to the negotiating table.

Arafat on Monday renewed his commitment to the current cease-fire and appealed to Israel to reopen full-scale peace negotiations immediately. There was no sign of a matching move from Israel by the time Arafat left Downing Street.

But a window of opportunity is now seen for the peace process to resume. Political demands for a return to negotiations are growing across the world, and there is immense pressure on both Arafat and Sharon.

Bush and Blair are talking now in terms of a Palestinian state that would include a share of Jerusalem for the Palestinians, and that may well be the sticking point. Sharon has said he doesn't favour the idea of a divided Jerusalem and that he will oppose it all the way.

Conscious that bin Laden is using the sufferings of Palestinians as a propaganda weapon, Blair was keen to show his awareness of their problems, although he balanced his concern carefully.

"The international community must be clear about the goal -- to end the suffering of the Palestinians living in poverty, without hope, to give them the peace and justice they need, and at the same time for Israelis to feel confident in their own security, free from terrorism in all its forms -- Israelis and Palestinians living side by side, each in their own state, able to prosper and develop," Blair said.

For Arafat, this trip is part of history's lesson learned. Arafat backed Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War, but he was swift to condemn the atrocities on September 11, underscoring his point by giving blood to help the victims. It made him a key catch for the anti-terrorist coalition and ensured his welcome in London.

Likewise, European Union leaders have welcomed the increased U.S. pressure on Sharon. When Bush first came to office, they felt he was pulling back from the Middle East peace process, certainly not taking as much interest in it as former U.S. President Bill Clinton had done.

They've welcomed Bush's reawakened interest in the peace process that has come about since September 11, and certainly there is clear evidence now of much greater pressure on Sharon from the American side -- which will be needed if there is to be any peace settlement reached.

By demonstrating his interest in justice for the Palestinians, Blair was able to help to keep happy Muslim members of the anti-terrorist coalition.

Meanwhile, Arafat was able to take advantage of the coalition powers' renewed interest in the Middle East peace process to plead his cause. He must be closer now to the meeting he'd like with the American president.


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